Photo/IllutrationEconomy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko speaks to reporters at a press conference on July 2. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Any trade policy that runs counter to the principle of free trade should be scrapped immediately. Japan should know better than to join the United States and China in their folly of recent years of using trade for political ends.

The Shinzo Abe administration on July 1 announced its decision to tighten controls on exports to South Korea, specifically on materials used in semiconductor production.

The administration is also set to remove South Korea from Japan’s list of “favored” countries that are deemed to pose no security threat to Japan.

Mutual hard feelings are rankling between Japan and South Korea over the issue of Korean laborers who were conscripted to work for Japanese manufacturers when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese control. The Abe administration’s decision is essentially a retaliatory reaction to Seoul’s refusal to deal with the issue in a manner acceptable to Tokyo.

As the host nation of the latest Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan reaffirmed its commitment to “free, fair and non-discriminatory” trade in the joint declaration. But a mere two days later, Japan revealed its callous disregard for that multilateral agreement with its export restriction policy.

Back in 2010, China blocked rare earth exports to Japan over the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute.

More recently, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump raised tariffs on steel and other imports for national security reasons.

The spread of such acts of arbitrary management of trade rules has become a cause of growing concern for the international community.

The Japanese government admits that the issue of wartime Korean laborers forms the background of its export restriction policy but denies the policy’s retaliatory nature.

This argument is totally lacking in conviction. If the government wants to be believed, the only way to go is to explain clearly, both at home and abroad, exactly why the export restrictions have to be imposed now, and how the matter affects Japan’s security.

Japan will not only stand to lose its international credibility in future trade talks but will also inflict damage on South Korea’s trade activities as well as its own. It would be the height of irresponsibility to try to weasel its way out with untenable excuses.

So far, the export of semiconductor materials themselves is not being banned. But as the screening period grows longer, some analysts project considerable shutdowns of semiconductor production in South Korea.

And that will quite likely hurt Japanese companies that do business with South Korea. Ultimately, South Korean manufacturers may turn to non-Japanese suppliers.

Dragging a political conflict into economic activities will do incalculable harm to Japan’s relations with South Korea.

Granted, Seoul’s handling of the wartime laborers issue leaves much to be desired. For example, South Korea’s proposed solution last month was unacceptable to Japan because it was conditional on Japanese companies providing funding.

Still, the Abe administration’s hasty action has only aggravated the situation. And as if taking the cue from that, the South Korean judiciary has taken one step forward toward cashing the stocks of the Japanese companies involved.

As well, Seoul is now considering appealing the case to the World Trade Organization, and this may trigger a chain of retaliation.

It is time for both Tokyo and Seoul to cool their heads. They must hasten to seek a resolution through diplomatic channels, namely by meetings of ranking officials.

The last thing we need is to ruin the relationship of mutual trust and exchanges built up over more than half century since the normalization of bilateral ties.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 3