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U.S., Japan grapple over trade issues during Obama’s visit

April 24, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
During a visit to Japan, President Obama observed traditions and technological innovations, while negotiators worked behind the scenes on a proposed trade pact. While the president vowed protection for Japan, the allies remain divided on a few key issues. Judy Woodruff talks to Mike Mochizuki of The George Washington University and Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to Japan, where President Obama spent the first full day of his four-nation Asia tour in the company of the country’s emperor, prime minister and a robot.

The president vowed U.S. protection for the host country, but the allied nations remain apart on a few key issues.

Pomp and pageantry filled the president’s day in Japan, from Emperor Akihito’s red carpet welcome at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, to demonstrations of feats of marksmanship.

COMPUTER VOICE: Mr. President, I’m ASIMO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And more current technological innovations.

The serious business of trade played out behind the scenes, where negotiators struggled to clear the way for a multination Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:

SHINZO ABE, Prime Minister, Japan (through interpreter): This will bring much benefit, and will have an effect that will last a hundred years. Due to the sincere talks with Barack, Japan will be able to move on to the next level, which is TPP negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The proposed trade pact faces strong opposition, even among some of the president’s Democratic allies. He called for bold moves to get over the hurdles.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: American manufacturers and farmers need to have meaningful access to markets that are included under TPP, including here in Japan. That’s what will make it a good deal for America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president and prime minister also focused on Japanese-Chinese tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Mr. Obama underscored U.S. military commitments to Japan, while prodding Tokyo’s leaders not to go too far.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully, not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That failed to satisfy Beijing. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed any U.S. role in the islands dispute.

QIN GAN, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, China (through interpreter): The so called U.S.-Japan security treaty is a product of the Cold War era. No matter what anyone says or does, it cannot change the basic reality that the islands are China’s inherent territory and cannot shake the determination of the Chinese government to protect our sovereignty and maritime rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: China also announced its navy will continue to patrol the waters near another island close to Taiwan, where Japan plans to build a radar base, all this as U.S. officials voice concerns about Prime Minister Abe’s increasingly nationalistic stance.

Tomorrow, the president flies to South Korea, the second stop on his four-country Asian tour.

To examine the president’s trip to Japan and the American-Japanese relationship, I’m joined by Mike Mochizuki. He’s associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. And Sheila Smith, she’s a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And we welcome you both.

SHEILA SMITH, Council on Foreign Relations: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Sheila Smith, this is the first time an American president had a state visit to Japan in 18 years. How important is this visit?

SHEILA SMITH: Oh, it’s tremendously important. The president was last in Japan on his own in 2009, for the very first time as president.

But this time, there’s been a lot that’s been happening in Japan since then. There’s been the 2011 disasters. There’s been political change, and, of course, now, as your piece pointed out, this tension with China. So this is a tremendous moment for the Japanese people and for the Japanese government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A tremendous moment, Mike Mochizuki?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI, The George Washington University: Oh, yes, this is a tremendous moment for the Japanese people, but also very important moment for Prime Minister Abe.

In December of last year, Prime Minister Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, despite repeated warnings from the United States not to visit that war memorial which enshrines Class A war criminals.

And, as a result of that, I think Mr. Abe took a big withdrawal from the trust account that he had with the U.S. president. And so this visit by President Obama was a way to restore that trust, and I think he was partially successful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much of an impediment is — we called it his nationalistic stance, the prime minister. He’s made statements in effect changing — or what seems to be changing the history of Japan’s role in World War II, and some other controversial comments.

What is the U.S. position on what the prime minister’s been saying?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, the United States’ position is that it doesn’t want Japan to ramp up the rhetoric, the nationalistic rhetoric about history, so that it would provoke, not just China, but most importantly America’s other very important ally in Northeast Asia Korea, South Korea.

And one of the issues is really, who is the real Abe? On the one hand, you have a pragmatic prime minister who has emphasized an economic revival and has promised to maintain the apologies. But there’s the other emotional and ideological Abe, who has a much more nationalistic and some would say revisionist view of history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Sheila Smith, do you expect this is something that came up in the conversations between the two leaders?

SHEILA SMITH: I expect so.

I think, since the Yasukuni Shrine visit on December 26 that Mike referred to, the two governments have been discussing this question of historical reconciliation in Northeast Asia very closely. The president, as you may know, hosted a trilateral summit between Prime Minister Abe and President Park and himself in The Hague during the nuclear summit a few weeks ago.

So this is something even at the president’s level that the U.S. government has been actively engaged in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Mochizuki, how do you — how do you assess the comments that President Obama made today about the U.S. position on these disputed islands, these tiny islands that are — Japan calls them Senkaku. The Chinese have another word for it.

In essence, the president said, we will honor our obligations to Japan, but we are not calling for — that one side or another to take control or to try to change the situation.

How did that comment, that posture, strike you?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, first of all, I think he struck the right balance.

On the one hand, he reiterated the U.S. position that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands. And this is the first time that a U.S. president has stated that explicitly, so I’m sure Mr. Abe was happy about that. But the president didn’t give Mr. Abe a blank check.

What he did was to say that the United States doesn’t want escalation, encourages dialogue, wants diplomacy, so that there won’t be a conflict over these islands. And so it definitely wasn’t a red line. It’s not a blank check. And I think the challenge is to diplomatically bring China and Japan together to de-escalate tensions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we reported, the Chinese are not happy with what the president — well, I guess one wouldn’t have expected them to be, unless the president had changed U.S. policy.

But, Sheila Smith, I also want to make time to speak about the trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that is being discussed. You didn’t see the two leaders discussing this. Clearly, it was — it did come up. What is the main sticking point?

SHEILA SMITH: Well, the main sticking point for the U.S. and Japan — right now, the U.S. and Japan are having parallel negotiations to the broader 12-party TPP process, which has 12 countries involved, right?

So, the U.S.-Japan conversation is really about market access. And the two specific areas are beef in Japan, access to the beef market in Japan, and our side, it’s autos, and specifically trucks. I suspect the trade negotiators may still be talking in Tokyo, although I expected to see something come out today. The president…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You did expect something?

SHEILA SMITH: I expected that there would be some sort of statement of at least an agreement, if not a final agreement, at least some accord.

The president, in his remarks today, did suggest, however, that the door was slightly still open between now and tomorrow, when he leaves the country. But he made a very strong statement about market access for American manufacturers and farmers. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Mochizuki, what are these two areas so problematic, beef and autos?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, both of them are very politically sensitive sectors.

In Japan, the beef lobby is very sensitive politically. On the U.S. side, the automobile industry is very sensitive. The automobile sector has been very important for the reelection of the president. It will matter for the midterm elections coming up.

And, therefore, President Obama cannot appear as if he is being weak in terms of promoting U.S. automobile interests vis-a-vis Japan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you expect there to be some progress on this?

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Well, I certainly hope so.

And this is very important for President Obama. Many people are accusing the — the so-called U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia as primarily about the military dimension. But he’s argued that TPP shows that economics is really important for the rebalance. And if he fails here, then people will question what the rebalance was all about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we are going leave it there.

Mike Mochizuki, Sheila Smith, we thank you both.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.

MIKE MOCHIZUKI: Thank you.