Will US trade protectionism affect Washington-Tokyo alliance?

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/21 20:48:40

According to Japan's national broadcaster NHK, the Japanese government informed the World Trade Organization(WTO) Friday of its readiness to take retaliatory steps against the US decision to set import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Tokyo said it is considering tariffs on US exports worth about 50 billion yen ($450 million), "the equivalent of duties levied by the US through its tariffs." But the Japanese government did not specify the items on which tariffs would be slapped.

When it comes to economic and trade issues between Japan and the US, Tokyo tends to adopt spontaneous restrictions. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, Japan placed restrictions on cotton and automobile export to the US in a bid to ease the pressure on the trade deficit. The last time Japan brought a case against the US at the WTO was in 2004, during then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's term. Japan had questioned the US method of calculating import duties and only after years of litigation, the WTO ruled in Tokyo's favor. The two sides reached a deal in 2012 after which Japan dropped its complaint.

Therefore, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may need to wait for a long time for a ruling after filing the lawsuit against Washington. But this move of Abe bears a symbolic significance - at home, his administration can send a message to the public about its determination to safeguard the multilateral free trade system; abroad, it shows Tokyo's diplomatic independence streak.

Apparently the Japanese decision has come after long-term deliberation at a carefully-chosen timing.

Since US President Donald Trump launched an attack on China over trade deficit, Beijing has never compromised, but has been hitting back. This may have to some extent given Abe the courage to say "no" to Washington.

When it comes to trade deficit with the US, China is facing what Japan did in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to the lack of courage to resist Washington, Tokyo signed the Plaza Accord, which led to a long-lasting economic downturn in Japan's economy. But seeing China stand up against unreasonable US demands, Japan finds it necessary to learn from Beijing.

Shortly after Japan issued a notice to the WTO, the EU also notified the organization of a list of US products such as rice, which EU may in the future impose extra import duties on in retaliation to Trump's steel tariffs. Hence the time Japan chose to challenge Washington can help it minimize the pressure on itself.

Meanwhile, with the improvement of Sino-Japanese relations, cooperation in economy and trade will be strengthened. Negotiations on China-Japan-South Korea free trade zone are likely to restart; they would make Japan less dependent on the US for economy and trade.

Japan has long been one of the most loyal allies of the US. Abe's administration attaches more importance on its ties with Washington, which can be seen from its participation in the US attempt to rebalance its Asia-Pacific strategy and practices to carry out Trump-initiated "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy.

Japan's countermeasures against the US on economic and trade issues may not necessarily shake the foundation of the Tokyo-Washington alliance, but are symbolic in showing that Trump's protectionism is so unpopular that even its closest ally is against it.

Japan's move will to some extent affect its relations with the US, but it is believed Abe's attitude on Japanese-US alliance won't change. Moreover, economic frictions between the two have only limited influence on the stability of their alliance.

As the third largest economy in the world, Japan is a beneficiary of the multilateral trading system, thanks to which, it could quickly recover after World War II. Japan has the responsibility and obligation to safeguard the stability and development of the international multilateral trading system. From this respective, Tokyo and Beijing jointly saying "no" to trade protectionism is laudable.

The author is an editor with the Global Times and a research fellow on Japan issues. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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