North Korea has been priority number one during Mike Pence’s Asia trip this week, with the Vice President conveying a message of resolve and reassurance to U.S. allies confronting the threat. Even while pledging to fully support South Korea and Japan, however, Pence has not shied away from addressing a familiar sticking point on trade. Financial Times:
“We have to be honest about where our trade relationship is falling short,” the US vice-president told US and Korean business leaders in Seoul. “Our businesses continue to face too many barriers to entry, which tilts the playing field against American workers.”
The US has to “level that playing field”, he added, saying “we will work with you” as we “reform Korus [the Korea-US trade deal] in the days ahead”.
Soon after the South Korea trip, Pence and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were on to Japan—and there too, trade was high on the agenda. Although Pence avoided outright criticism of Japan’s trade deficits, he did push for future bilateral negotiations to increase U.S. access to Japanese markets, while crushing lingering Japanese hopes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership could be resurrected:
Pence said the TPP was a “thing of the past” and Washington would not wait forever for results from the talks.
“When President Trump agreed to this dialogue, he envisioned this as a mechanism for enhancing bilateral commercial relations between the United States and Japan, and achieving results in the near future. And I share that vision and impatience,” Pence told Aso at the start of the talks.
In some sense, Pence’s tough talk on trade deficits is a return to form: addressing trade imbalances has long been a core priority for Team Trump, and both Japan and South Korea came under fire during the campaign for their allegedly unfair practices. But that doesn’t mean that this rhetoric will necessarily stick around. Last week, for example, Trump suggested he might offer the Chinese a better trade deal in exchange for cooperation against Pyongyang. As WRM wrote at the time, that offer provided a clear window into Trump’s emerging vision of bilateral trade as a political bargaining chip that can be used to extract concessions elsewhere.
The question is how our Asian allies end up reacting. On the one hand, it’s impossible not to take the needling seriously, given the economic clout the United States possesses. On the other, it must be hard for them not to wonder what lesser concession they might be able to get away with, if only the geopolitical stars line up just right.