TOKYO -- Having scored a sound victory in the upper house election Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is back to confronting thorny diplomatic issues as Washington presses for tangible results on global security and trade.
U.S. President Donald Trump had signaled that he would wait until the Japanese election is over to push for a trade deal. Now Washington is certain to step up pressure to put together an agreement palatable to U.S. farmers ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Japan is increasingly alarmed by the U.S. bringing Trump style deal-making to diplomacy and trade.
John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, was in the Japanese capital Monday, seeking Tokyo's support amid rising tensions with Iran. Bolton told Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya that their two countries "are at an extremely critical juncture to strengthen the bilateral alliance." He likely called on Tokyo to participate in a coalition that would safeguard ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard seized a British oil tanker in the strait on Friday. A Japanese-owned oil tanker also suffered an attack in the area in June.
Discussions about the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance will continue over the next several days and weeks, Bolton told reporters after his meeting with Iwaya, adding that he was very "optimistic" about the outcome.
Abe told reporters on Monday that he first wanted to focus on what Japan could do to ease tensions in the Middle East. "The peace and stability of the Middle East are critically important for Japan's energy security," Abe said.
But Japan's opposition lawmakers are wary of the coalition proposed by Washington. "As a matter of national policy, we should not contribute militarily," said Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which gained seats in the election.
Sending Japan's Self-Defense Forces to the Strait of Hormuz risks damaging Tokyo's traditionally friendly ties with Iran. Japan will examine its options after the U.S. hosts an information session Thursday in Florida.
Trade negotiations will be under way in earnest as well. "Trade-wise, I think we will be announcing some things, probably in August, that will be very good for both countries," Trump said while visiting Japan at the end of May.
"Trump will quickly remind Prime Minister Abe that the U.S. would like to speed up trade talks," Scott Seaman, director of Asia at the Eurasia Group, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He will be looking for a small early-harvest deal, mostly on agriculture and autos, before moving on to a second stage where a much larger range of items will be discussed for a comprehensive deal."
The countries will hold working-level talks from Wednesday to Friday on lowering tariffs on agricultural and industrial products, with plans to ramp up cabinet-level discussions in August. Washington particularly seeks lower tariffs for beef, pork and dairy products.
U.S. farmers have suffered from the trade war with China. American beef and pork are also losing ground in Japan, as competing products from elsewhere enjoy lower tariffs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal from which the U.S. exited, as well as Tokyo's economic partnership agreement with the European Union.
Washington and Tokyo have agreed during previous cabinet-level meetings that Japan will not lower tariffs further than it did for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"In the past, the priority seemed to be in autos, but more recently it has shifted to agriculture as U.S. farmers face disadvantages from the TPP," said Eurasia's Seaman. "But since it is easier for Trump to apply pressure on Japan through auto tariffs, he may use autos as leverage to gain benefits in agriculture."
The U.S. is eager to put a deal into effect before the first presidential primary votes are cast in February. By showing a willingness for a swift deal, Japan hopes to keep the U.S. from imposing additional tariffs or quotas on automobile shipments.
But Tokyo worries that Washington could also adopt a more hard-nosed, Trumpian approach in both trade and security negotiations. Trump recently began expressing frustrations again over the security ties between Japan and the U.S. Abe will meet with Trump on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in late August to discuss various issues.