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International relations

Japan's trade point man strives to shield talks from Trump

Tokyo hopes April 15-16 negotiations set positive tone for summit

Japan-U.S. trade discussions have made more progress since Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi took over as Japan's lead negotiator last year.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The upcoming Japan-U.S. trade talks present a challenge for lead Japanese negotiator Toshimitsu Motegi: make enough headway to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump not to intervene and potentially upend the whole process.

Motegi, Japan's economic and fiscal policy minister, will visit Washington on April 15-16 for the two sides' first negotiations since Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed in September to work toward a trade agreement on goods.

The Japanese government hopes to use this to lay the groundwork for a summit later this month. Tokyo is keen to ensure Washington is on the same page with regard to denuclearizing North Korea and settling the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang, and wants to avoid a counterproductive clash between Abe and Trump on trade.

If negotiators have some progress to show before then, Trump could decide to trust them to deal with the trade issue, the thinking goes. Japan looks to have Motegi attend the summit as well.

The minister has so far managed to avoid the interference from Trump that has derailed other talks.

Diplomacy usually involves working-level negotiators and cabinet members hammering out the details of proposed agreements, with leaders giving their stamp of approval at the end of the process. Trump has taken a more top-down approach with policy pronouncements, sometimes via Twitter, that often render lower-level efforts meaningless.

Last May, for example, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the trade war with China was being put "on hold" after the two sides reached an agreement to address the bilateral trade imbalance. Less than 10 days later, Trump reignited the conflict by announcing plans for additional tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods.

Trump's February meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un followed a similar pattern. Talks ahead of the summit had led the North to expect some concessions from Washington, but Trump responded by walking away from the negotiating table.

In a possible sign of the U.S. government putting less emphasis on lead-up discussions, the State Department said Tuesday that a deputy secretary -- not Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- would attend a meeting of Group of Seven foreign affairs ministers this week in France. This leaves the U.S. without a top representative at an event intended to set the stage for the G-7 summit there in August.

Given this trend, negotiations between Motegi and Lighthizer have fared unusually well, with Trump yet to publicly complain about or seek to undo their results.

"Motegi is striving to respond well to Trump's and Lighthizer's demands," a Japanese government source said.

The two countries initially planned to discuss trade and other issues through an economic dialogue led by Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. But soon after the second round in October 2017, Trump complained during a visit to Tokyo that "our trade with Japan is not fair and it's not open." No meetings have been held through this framework since.

Motegi and Lighthizer took over in 2018 with "free, fair and reciprocal" trade talks, which led to the September accord to seek a trade agreement on goods.

Trade negotiations were "something that, for various reasons over the years, Japan was unwilling to do, and now they are willing to do," Trump said during Abe's U.S. visit, adding that, "I'm sure we'll come to a satisfactory conclusion."

The lack of conflict may owe partly to Lighthizer being preoccupied with China. "It'll take a while to get an entire" free trade agreement with Japan, he said last month, suggesting that Washington could back off on its services-related demands for now in order to conclude a deal more quickly.

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