At risk of sounding like a broken record one of the under-appreciated aspects of the TPP is the fact it is a multilateral negotiation that sits somewhere between the seemingly hopeless WTO negotiations and the more familiar bilateral negotiation. That is, not a Japan-US bilateral despite domestic Japanese rhetoric suggesting otherwise. This insight is of great strategic importance both for the negotiators who will go into battle, but it should also be of great importance for the domestic debate, wishful as that might be.
In this sense today’s news (ja) that Canada and Mexico want to join the TPP should be viewed positively by the Noda administration. We now have 12 potential members: Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei (the P4 ie the actual TPP), but also as the interested parties we have Vietnam, Peru, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Malaysia. Not only does it raise the stakes of missing out for Japan, if the Noda government and its allies on this issue had more influence over the TPP narrative, it also brings on potential “allies” in the negotiation. Canada certainly is not going to compromise too much on its public medical system, and Canada also has a number of minor agricultural protectionist issues of its own. Mexico may be one of the “cheap produce” threats agriculturally speaking, but someone in Japan needs to aggressively attack the almost absurd idea that the price elasticity of Japanese produce is anything but extraordinarily inelastic, ESPECIALLY rice. In fact this could almost be argued by a creative negotiator as a non-tariff barrier to trade, along with the Japanese language.
This has two potential and interrelated strategic consequences. First if the domestic situation really does become too difficult the added complexity will likely slow down the negotiating process, giving breathing room to the Noda government, and time to mollify key stakeholders. This in turn will give the Japanese government more time to present a convincing strategy to reform the agricultural sector which is in its current incarnation a threat to itself and Japan’s long-term food security.
Secondly, should certain changes really be a bridge too far then Japan does have allies to lean on to make only the minimal necessary changes. This will be particularly important for negotiations over pharmaceutical procurement within Japan and others’ medical systems.
The general dilution of US “influence” should be of great rhetorical advantage in the domestic debate over the TPP for its proponents. I’m skeptical that the US influence would be all that bad if countries negotiated with a firm and clear understanding of their national interests in mind. But there is in Japan a sense that Japan’s bureaucrats will somehow relent under sustained US pressure in any negotiations, in addition to looking out for their own in domestic turf battles. However the enemy this time isn’t other Japanese but overseas interests.
In any respect I believe this worry, while not unreasonable given public disillusionment with the bureaucracy in Japan, confuses two quite different strands of the US-Japan diplomatic relationship, if we must really simplify the TPP down to this dynamic. On security issues and the alliance the MOFA may well from time to time be willing to relent on issues of national importance for the sake of diplomatic cordiality, ie Futenma. However those with long memories will remember that Japanese trade negotiators are a completely different breed – tactically aware and extraordinarily familiar with the details. As we all know Japan bureaucratic institutional memory is strong – sometimes to Japan’s detriment – but in this case the pool of knowledge from the 80s still remains and successors have been cultivated.
Nevertheless, bringing more countries into the TPP should be viewed positively, not negatively in terms of the political messages that can be leveraged from such developments. And ultimately if Japan does have to make an diplomatically undignified withdrawal as some are worrying (insincerely I believe), then it is all the more likely it will not be alone.