April 19, 2017 7:00 am JST

Inaugural Japan-US talks bring no clarity

Differing aims, uncertainty over Trump's stance blur outlook for new dialogue

AKIO FUJII, Nikkei senior editorial writer

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

TOKYO -- As the new Japan-U.S. economic dialogue kicked off Tuesday, Tokyo looked to gain the upper hand through meticulous preparation, but slow progress on key appointments left a high degree of uncertainty on the American side, making it impossible to delve into substantive talks.

Japan wants to keep the sort of tensions that characterized bilateral trade relations in the past out of the new dialogue. Toward this end, it demanded that Tuesday's meeting be limited to just a few participants. The aim was to keep U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who would likely have brought up specific issues, away from talks intended to focus on establishing an overall framework for dialogue. Tuesday's discussion ran just an hour, shorter than originally planned, and the joint statement issued afterward was terse.

Yet Ross was still involved, meeting separately with Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko before the main talks between Japanese Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Japan had sought to seize the initiative from the outset by proposing the dialogue at the February meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump. The initial framework-building seems to have proceeded as Tokyo hoped. But Aso and Pence's joint news conference after their meeting soon illustrated a disconnect between the two sides.

Pence made clear that Washington is focused on bilateral free trade agreements rather than multilateral deals. He called the Trans-Pacific Partnership a "thing of the past," seeming to puncture Japanese hopes of a possible American return to the trade pact down the road.

But much about Washington's approach remains murky. Reports suggest a tug of war in the White House between pragmatists from Wall Street and hard-liners intent on reducing deficits with trading partners. Power struggles of the sort often seen in the early days of new administrations remain unresolved.

Further complicating the issue is Trump's own position. After his recent meeting with President Xi Jinping, Trump has readily discarded a campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator. At the same time, the U.S. president has complained of the dollar "getting too strong." Of particular concern are his comments suggesting that the U.S. could go easy on China regarding trade if Beijing acts on North Korea.

For Trump -- a self-proclaimed master of the deal -- national security issues, currency policy and trade may be no more than cards to play in negotiations. The behavior of a president praised by supporters as "flexible" and lambasted by detractors as "unpredictable" casts a shadow over Japan-U.S. dialogue.

Amid all this, tensions are mounting over North Korea. Pence reaffirmed cooperation between Washington and Tokyo on the matter in a meeting Tuesday with Abe. But concerns linger that Trump will play the security card with Tokyo as well.

Japan-U.S. tensions on trade once ran high enough to shake currency markets, with some even calling the situation a trade war. The circumstances of both countries have changed in the 21st century. What is needed is clear-headed discussion that faces up to this reality head-on. But the inaugural meeting of the new dialogue was not very encouraging on this front.

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