Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to a question at his daily news conference. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Government and business officials were bracing for the possibility that U.S. President Donald Trump will harden his stance in trade negotiations following his setback in the Nov. 6 midterm U.S. congressional elections.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to give reassurances that the elections, in which Trump’s Republican Party strengthened its majority in the U.S. Senate but lost control of the House of Representatives, would not directly affect Japan-U.S. relations.

“There is a common understanding about the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance that goes beyond differences between the Republican and Democratic parties,” the top government spokesman said at his Nov. 7 news conference.

But with Japan-U.S. negotiations on a Trade Agreement on Goods (TAG) expected to begin in January, Japanese officials were already expecting Trump to take a hard-line protectionist stance to appeal to his support base with his own re-election campaign coming up in two years.

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump issued a joint statement in September announcing that new TAG negotiations would start, government officials repeatedly said that opening up the Japanese market to U.S. farm products would never go beyond the limits established in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement, which the United States is no longer a part of.

Abe also said that he had confirmed in his September meeting with Trump that import tariffs on Japanese automobiles would not be hiked while the TAG negotiations were going on.

However, Sonny Perdue, the U.S. agriculture secretary, is one of a number of U.S. officials who have staked out major objectives for the TAG discussions. Perdue said his goal was to go beyond the TPP limits.

One Japanese government source said the U.S. side might present harsh demands when actual negotiations begin.

A financial expert said the division of powers in the U.S. government might prompt Trump to take even more drastic measures.

“The U.S. action on trade issues could become sharper if President Trump decides to place more emphasis on trade policy that could be implemented without the consent of Congress,” Ayako Sera, an analyst at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank Ltd., said.

Moreover, the Democratic Party, which now controls the House, has traditionally been more cautious about free trade than the Republicans. Trade with Japan could become a rare issue in which Trump and the Democrats see eye to eye.

“There is the possibility that the Democrats and Trump could become more in sync about a protectionist trade policy,” said Akihiko Yasui, who heads the Research Department-Europe and the Americas at Mizuho Research Institute Ltd.

Government officials will also be focusing on how the midterm election results affect U.S. relations with China and North Korea.

There is a difference of opinion over the direction the United States will take toward North Korea. Some believe the election results will have no effect, while others feel Washington will move toward a more hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.

Japanese officials will be paying close attention because many feel that cooperation with the United States is vital for Japan’s own policy toward North Korea.

(This article was compiled from reports by Akihiro Nishiyama, Ryo Kiyomiya, Shinya Wake and Aki Fukuyama.)