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International relations

Japan drafts Thailand to sell Trump on TPP

Tokyo hopes new Southeast Asia members make trade pact impossible to shun

Japanese economic minister Toshimitsu Motegi, right, will visit Thailand to help the country join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, giving Tokyo another ally as the U.S. demands a bilateral trade deal.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's point man on the Trans-Pacific Partnership will visit Thailand in early May as the Southeast Asian nation looks to join the sweeping trade pact, with Tokyo hoping that fresh entrants will help bring the U.S. back on board.

The Thai government said in March that it wants to become a TPP member. Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's economic and fiscal policy minister, aims to create momentum for Bangkok's entry by meeting with Thai officials including Somkid Jatusripitak, the deputy prime minister in charge of economic issues.

Japan and 10 other nations last month inked a version of the TPP that was revamped to function without the U.S., which withdrew from the pact in January 2017. Adding Thailand, a powerhouse for manufacturing in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, would give other interested countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia all the more reason to follow suit.

Most importantly to Tokyo, bringing more countries into the pact could put pressure on the U.S. to return to the fold. President Donald Trump has resisted suggestions that Washington do so, pushing instead for negotiations on a bilateral Japan-U.S. trade deal. A recent summit between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe produced an agreement to launch talks between Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on so-called free, fair and reciprocal trade.

The first round of these talks could be held in late June. Japan hopes by then to foster a sense that Tokyo is driving a campaign to expand the TPP as a strategy to counter American demands for a bilateral agreement. 

Thailand is a natural partner in this project, having broken off trade talks with the U.S. in 2007 amid disagreement over protections for drug patent data. Trump seems eager to reduce the American trade deficit with Thailand, telling Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the country's military junta, last October that "we're going to try and sell a little bit more to you."

Japan thinks bringing the Southeast Asian nation and its neighbors into the TPP would stoke fear among American businesses of losing competitiveness in Asia, as companies in the region will be able to take advantage of common, low tariffs when setting up operations. U.S. business leaders might pressure the Trump administration to take part in the multilateral agreement, rather than forging ahead with bilateral deals.

Trump also may grow more flexible in his views on trade ahead of midterm congressional elections in November. Japan thus wants to present the TPP as the likely core of Asia-Pacific trade.

Before new nations can join the TPP, the current members must ratify the pact. Japan's government is pushing the Diet to sign off quickly on the agreement and urging other participants to do the same, aiming to have the pact in effect by the end of the year. Lead negotiators from the 11 TPP nations are due to meet in Tokyo as soon as June, when they will discuss how other countries would be admitted.

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