Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump after they signed a joint statement regarding a bilateral trade agreement on Sept. 25. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Diet on Dec. 4 approved a new trade agreement the government has negotiated with the United States, ensuring that it will take effect on Jan. 1, as demanded by Washington.

But the Diet debate on the trade deal has left many key questions unanswered. They include whether the Trump administration has really committed itself to eliminating U.S. tariffs on Japanese automobiles and car parts in the future, as the Japanese government claims, and what kind of effects the pact will have on domestic farmers.

It is difficult to accept that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has fulfilled its responsibility to explain the agreement on bilateral trade to the Japanese public. The government needs to offer sincere and detailed explanations in response to questions and concerns about the deal among the people.

The Diet deliberations on the bill failed to delve deep into key issues because of the government’s insincere responses.

Two weeks ago, when the Upper House started considering the bill after it was passed by the Lower House, Abe promised to give “thoughtful and scrupulous” explanations about the agreement.

But the administration rejected the opposition demand, as it did during the Lower House deliberations, for an estimate of the economic benefits of the trade agreement that does not include the effects of the elimination of U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto-related exports to the United States. It said the removal of the duties is a “done deal.”

As for the basis for its claim that Abe has secured U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge not to impose additional tariffs or numerical restrictions on Japanese auto exports to the United States, the government only said it was a “promise between the two leaders” and offered no other information to back its assertion.

With regard to the trade accord’s impacts on domestic farmers, the government has announced the ratio of the tariffs on agricultural, forestry and fisheries imports that will be eliminated only on the basis of the number of items. The ratio, and the impact on farmers, could be much higher if it is based on the value of imports.

Opposition parties denounced the government for only repeating old answers, saying its attitude amounts to “outrageous behavior that ignores national interests and the rule of law and betrays the trust of not only the Japanese public but also the international community.”

The accusation of “betrayal of the international community” was based on the possibility that the bilateral trade deal could violate the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that require any bilateral trade agreement to remove import duties on “substantially all” the trade between the two countries, with “substantially all” usually interpreted as 90 percent or more.

If the U.S. tariffs on Japanese cars, which constitute a sizable portion of Japan’s exports to the United States, are not actually eliminated, the 90 percent bar will not be cleared.

The focus of the trade relations between the two countries will shift to a new round of bilateral talks to determine which areas should be covered in the second phase of the trade negotiations.

In a joint statement issued in September by Abe and Trump after striking the deal, they said the two countries “intend to conclude consultations within four months after the date of entry into force” of the agreement and “enter into negotiations thereafter in the areas of customs duties and other restrictions on trade, barriers to trade in services and investment, and other issues.”

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi says the new round will cover only the areas both sides have agreed to tackle and will not include “tariffs negotiations concerning agricultural products and other items.” But why can he say so?

Trump is seeking re-election for a second term in November next year. If Tokyo demands that he keep his promise to eliminate the U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto-related products, Trump is likely to call on Japan to open its market further to U.S. farm products and services and make other concessions.

In fact, “Annex I” to the trade agreement says, “In future negotiations, the United States will be seeking preferential treatment with respect to agricultural goods.”

Abe has touted the deal as a commitment by the two countries to “expanding globally an economic zone based on free and fair rules.” He should be true to his word by ensuring that Washington will agree to discuss the elimination of the U.S. tariffs on Japanese auto exports.

If the bilateral agreement violates the international rules on trade, it will set a bad example for international trade negotiations in the coming years.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 5