Abe vows to defend Japan’s interests as Trump meeting looms

US President Donald Trump (right) congratulated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his "HUGE" re-election in a tweet, and said he was looking forward to working together.
US President Donald Trump (right) congratulated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his "HUGE" re-election in a tweet, and said he was looking forward to working together.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) -  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to defend Japan’s interests as he prepares for talks with President Donald Trump in New York next Wednesday (Sept 26) amid concerns that the US could follow through on threats of further tariffs on exports. 

On Monday (Sept 24), Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is set for a second round of talks on bilateral trade with his US counterpart, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Abe is scheduled to hold broader discussions with Trump on Sept 26, Japan's top government spokesman said on Friday (Sept 21).

Their meeting will be held on the sidelines of Mr Abe's visit to New York to attend a United Nations General Assembly.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said the two leaders would have dinner together on Sunday (Sept 23).

While the US is pressing for a bilateral trade agreement, Abe has persistently urged Trump to reconsider his decision to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seeking to entice the US back to the regional trade pact. 

“National interests will always clash,” Abe said in an interview with Japanese public broadcaster NHK Thursday, hours after winning a third consecutive term as leader of the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The victory clears the way for him to become Japan’s longest-serving premier. 

“I want to defend Japan’s national interests to the hilt,” Abe said. “For example, on agricultural products I have said I won’t go any further than what was offered in TPP.”

Personal Relationship

Abe has invested in building a personal relationship with Trump, who tweeted congratulations on Thursday on Mr Abe's "HUGE" re-election. 

The 63-year-old conservative secured 553 votes against 254 won by former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, in a two-horse race for leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, effectively handing Mr Abe three more years as PM.

"Congratulations to my good friend Prime Minister @AbeShinzo on his HUGE election victory," Mr Trump said in a tweet.

"I'm looking forward to many more years of working together. See you in New York next week!" he added.

But Abe has failed to secure an exemption for Japan from US steel and aluminum tariffs implemented in March. Japan’s steel exports to the US have since fallen to their lowest level in more than seven years. 

Concerns are simmering that Japan may soon face punitive tariffs on its auto exports or more demands to open up its farm sector, which remains protected even under TPP regulations. 

“Tit-for-tat trade sanctions don’t benefit any country,” Abe told a gathering of LDP lawmakers on Monday, without mentioning Trump by name. “Now is the time for Japan to take the lead in creating the rules of the new era as a flag-bearer for free trade.”

Abe’s ultra-loose monetary policy has helped Japan achieve its strongest period of economic growth in decades. But US trade sanctions are a looming threat to what he claims as a major success of his almost six years in office. 

‘Big Problem’

While playing down the conflict between the two sides as “a difference in methods” with the common goal of expanding trade and investment, Abe told NHK the issue of automotive trade should be dealt with strictly under World Trade Organisation rules.

Motegi told reporters Friday that he didn’t believe concerns about agriculture would be substantiated, Kyodo News reported.  Trump told reporters earlier this month that it would be a “big problem” if the two countries aren’t able to reach a trade deal.

US ambassador to Tokyo William Hagerty kept up the pressure in a Sept 10 interview with Japanese broadcaster BS Fuji. 

“We need a trade agreement, we should have a trade agreement, and I feel confident we will have one,” Hagerty said. Dismissing TPP as impossible to pass in the US senate, he said a bilateral agreement must be agreed quickly so as to avoid US farmers and other businesses being put at a disadvantage.

“I think the president will be able to articulate that very clearly when he and the prime minister meet next.”

Japan, which has been critical of US tariffs on China amid a growing trade dispute between Washington and Beijing, will also send Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko to the US from Sept 24.

Seko told reporters Friday that he was set to hold talks on WTO reform with his US and European Union counterparts. 

Japan has seen overall trade deficits in the past two months, largely triggered by higher oil prices. Its imports of liquefied natural gas from the US climbed to a record high in August, just as sanctions imposed by China are set to make US LNG less competitive in that market.