Photo/IllutrationEconomy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, right, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, left, during trade talks held in Washington D.C. on Aug. 9 (Pool)

Japan and the United States recently held the first round of their new ministerial-level trade talks in Washington.

During the two days of talks, which ended on Aug. 10, the United States demanded bilateral negotiations for a free trade agreement between the two countries.

On the other side, Japan argued that the new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, renegotiated among 11 Pacific Rim countries after U.S. withdrawal from the original pact, which is expected to go into effect as early as next year, is the best trade deal for both countries.

Washington and Tokyo failed to narrow the differences in their trade agendas and stances.

In March, the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump slapped new steep tariffs on steel and aluminum products from major U.S. trade partners including Japan.

As midterm elections in November draw near, the Trump administration may take a more hard-line stance in the talks to score political points by tackling the problem of a trade imbalance between the United States and Japan.

The challenge for Tokyo is to map out an effective strategy to prevent trade tensions with Washington from increasing further without compromising its key trade interests.

The Japanese government needs to explore options to achieve the goal through carefully planned negotiations without deviating from the core principle of fair and free trade.

The biggest trade-related worry for the world at the moment is the high tariffs on foreign automobiles the Trump administration is considering. The envisioned new massive duties on U.S. car imports could deliver a heavy blow to the world economy as a whole.

During the talks in Washington, Japan urged the U.S. government to drop the plan, but the American trade negotiators offered no clear response.

If Washington uses a threat of high car tariffs as a bargaining chip in the trade talks, there can be no level-headed negotiations.

The Trump administration’s trade policy has faced harsh criticism at home as well. Critics contend that Trump’s approach will also weaken the U.S. economy. Tokyo should make tenacious efforts to convince the U.S. government that it is in its best interest to refrain from taking the aggressive protectionist measure.

Although the two sides agreed on the importance of expanding bilateral trade, the Japanese and U.S. negotiators decided to leave specific issues to the second round of talks in September.

Even if Washington calls on Japan to take steps that run counter to the principles of free trade, such as voluntary restrictions on exports to the United States, Tokyo should resolutely reject such demands.

The Japanese government is reportedly considering various proposals as potential concessions to the United States, including increased imports of liquefied natural gas and defense equipment as well as expanded investments in manufacturing plants in the United States.

Economy minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s top negotiator for the talks, referred to the possibility of discussing issues that are not general trade rules during the talks in the coming months.

But it would be wrong for the Japanese government to offer to buy more weapons from the United States as a means to trim the bilateral trade imbalance. Expansion of defense equipment imports should be considered carefully from the viewpoint of the defense capabilities Japan should have.

This idea should be off the list of topics to be discussed during the trade talks.

The two governments also discussed such issues as the establishment of new international trade rules through reforms of the World Trade Organization and efforts to deal with China’s violations of intellectual property rights of other countries.

Cooperation between the two governments on these trade policy challenges is welcomed.

Trade talks between the two leading economic powers should contribute to promoting global free trade, not just trade between them.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 14