What’s at stake and at risk in the U.S.-Japan trade talks

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe to the White House April 26, 2019 in Washington DC.

More than two years after U.S. President Donald Trump walked away from a regional Asia-Pacific trade agreement, the U.S. and Japan — the world’s largest and third-largest economies — are negotiating a deal of their own. Both sides insist they want a “win-win” outcome, but as evidenced by the Trump administration’s tariff battles with China and the European Union, there’s also potential for serious economic damage if things go bad.

1. What are the two sides after?

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Trump abhors trade deficits, and the U.S. is determined to reduce the one with Japan, particularly by gaining access for exports by American farmers and automakers. Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wants to head off Trump’s threatened penalties on auto exports, which could tip it into recession, as well as any “currency clause” directed at the Japanese yen.

2. Why are these talks happening?

After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11 other members (including Japan) went ahead without the U.S. to forge a successor. That pact, which entered into force Dec. 30, and another that Abe struck in 2018 with the EU, have left U.S. farmers at a disadvantage: They risk losing their 22 percent share of Japan’s food-import market to rivals with lower tariffs. Abe dragged his heels on bilateral talks in the hope that the U.S. would rejoin the TPP rather than press for a better deal. He only agreed to talks in September after Trump hit Japan’s steel and aluminum exports with punitive tariffs and threatened to impose levies of as much as 25 percent on all imported cars, including those made in Japan.

3. What’s being negotiated?

In addition to agriculture, the first round of talks between Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer included talks on other goods such as autos and auto parts, which make up the biggest portion of the U.S. trade deficit. The U.S. side wants a deal that would help sell American cars in Japan, while Japan wants to avoid damaging tariffs on autos and auto parts that would dent its already lackluster economy. The two sides will also hold discussions on digital trade, but other types of services are off the table, at least for now.

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