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Trans-Pacific Partnership: Trouble for Abe in Japan?


Wikileaks got its hands on a draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and it appears to vindicate many of the fears of internet freedom advocates. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, the agreement will greatly help “multinational movie and music industries, software giants and pharmaceutical manufacturers to maintain and increase prices by reinforcing the rights of copyright and patent owners, clamping down on online piracy and raising obstacles to the introduction of generic drugs and medicines.”

We’ll let the intellectual property experts argue over those details; what concerns us, in looking at this unfinished draft, is Japan’s position. The agreement proposes to abolish tariffs on a wide variety of products, including agricultural produce like beef, rice, and wheat. Abolishing these tariffs is key to the “third arrow” of Abenomics, which targets deep structural reform in Japan’s economy. But Japan’s agriculture industry vehemently opposes eliminating the tariffs, for obvious reasons. That industry depends heavily on the government for assistance, and a number of analysts have argued that Abe’s popularity would drop, and his economic agenda fail, without the support of rural farmers.

Abe has staked his reputation on reviving Japan’s economy, and so far Abenomics seems to be working quite well. But investors worry about long-term progress. Abe administration officials counter that the “third arrow” involves difficult but manageable structural changes to the economy that will restore investor confidence in the long term.

The TPP is key to this. But will the agricultural industry scuttle it for Japan? Probably not, according to an op-ed in the Japan Times. Farmers, and powerful agricultural collectives, oppose Japan’s participation in the TPP discussion because it will reduce the prices of many of their products. But these groups have a limited ability to affect the final outcome of the TPP. Abe has vowed to seek exceptions to the tariffs anyway, so Japanese farmers may find their wishes granted in the end. But even if Abe’s negotiators fail, his administration still holds the purse strings on other important subsidy packages for the Japanese agriculture industry.

The real problem for Abe is if the TPP, and the “third arrow” of economic reform along with it, fails to keep Japan’s economy in shape. So far Abenomics has kept Abe’s popularity higher than any Japanese prime minister in recent memory. But should his economic agenda collapse, other items on his agenda, like strengthening the military and changing the country’s pacifist constitution, could be washed away in the backlash.

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