Opinion | Alan Wirzbicki

As the US exits the Pacific trade deal, Japan steps in to fill the void

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Markus Schreiber/AP
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23.

When 11 Pacific Rim nations gathered last year in Tokyo without the United States to hammer out a trade deal, they faced differences over tariffs and rules, labor laws, and environmental standards. But there was also a new logistical hurdle: Someone had to the manage the flow of paperwork between the negotiators.

It’s the sort of mundane task that staffers from the United States usually shoulder at big multilateral gatherings — the grunt work that comes with superpower status. But with the United States absent, officials involved said, Japanese officials managed the trade talks instead.

The broader importance of the deal that emerged from those talks, a huge 11-nation agreement that went into effect Dec. 30, may not be what it contains — though it’s expected to spur economic growth in member countries, while hobbling American farmers and manufacturers. The agreement’s greatest significance is that it exists at all, cobbled together after American withdrawal initially threatened to kill off the whole deal.


Whether it’s at recent climate talks or in trade deals, one consequence of the Trump administration’s chaotic approach to foreign policy is that it’s forcing allies to shoulder leadership roles, big and small, once filled by the United States. Whoever follows Trump in the White House will encounter a changed landscape — of countries that have scrambled to keep international organizations and treaties on track and may not be in any hurry to hand that responsibility back to Washington.

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“In a certain way, Japan experienced playing the leadership role, and that gave us a good idea of how hard it must have been for the US for almost everything,” said a senior Japanese government official regarding the trade talks to resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “For Japan or Europe, it’s a wake-up call that the alliance is important, but you may have to do a lot of things yourself. That’s healthier, perhaps.”

In the case of the Pacific trade agreement, a multifaceted agreement that Trump exited in the early days of his administration, it was the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that stepped into the void, at the urging of other countries in the bloc desperate to salvage the deal. The deal slices tariffs while enacting trade rules and standards. The countries agreed to freeze 22 parts of the trade agreement — the environmental, labor, and intellectual property provisions the Obama administration had pushed for during the negotiations — and kept the rest.

It’s an especially striking role for Japan, which since World War II has gone to great lengths to avoid the very sort of leadership roles it was thrust into over the last last year. (The former editor of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Yoichi Funabashi, noted the “extreme historical irony” that the country had just created a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Imperial Japan’s long-ago goal.)

I visited Tokyo recently on a trip paid for by the Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit that helps foreign journalists in Japan. And while every government official, economist, and industry group I spoke with expressed hope the United States would come back to TPP eventually, few were holding their breath.


“The US is becoming a more protectionist country, regardless of party,” said Shujiro Urata, a professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Without the United States, the TPP is less economically attractive — businesses in places like Malaysia and Vietnam desperately wanted access to US markets — but still powerful. In Japan, it’s expected to add about 1.5 percent to GDP growth, and to yield consumer benefits in the form of lower prices for goods like Australian beef and Canadian wheat.

It’s also giving companies in the 11 countries a competitive advantage over American exporters, particularly farmers, who now won’t be able to compete on a level playing field. Meanwhile, Thailand and Colombia are considering membership, and Britain is said to be interested in joining when (and if) it completes its exit from the European Union. Adopting the vision once held by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who called TPP the “gold-standard” of trade agreements before reversing her position in the Democratic presidential primary, Japanese officials now imagine the revised TPP forming the rules of the road for international trade.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is instead pursuing bilateral trade deals, which are generally viewed as less meaningful in a modern economy in which supply chains can cross multiple national borders.

Countries like Japan aren’t going to part ways with the United States. But they are becoming more willing to ignore its whims and tempers and to forge mulilateral world agreements without American approval.


Fukunari Kimura, an economics professor at Keio University, said Japan would try to “encourage the US to come back to a normal track.”

Meanwhile, though, it’s full steam ahead without us.

Alan Wirzbicki is a Globe editorial writer. He can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.