TOKYO — The United States wants “stronger and more balanced bilateral trade relationships” with countries including Japan and South Korea, Vice President Pence said Tuesday, raising the prospect of opening bilateral talks with Tokyo and reviewing a deal already struck with Seoul.
Pence’s remarks, to business leaders in South Korea and then after meetings with Japan’s prime minister and his deputy Tuesday, hew closely to President Trump’s “America First” promises on the campaign trail.
“We seek trade that is free. We seek trade that is fair,” Pence said in Tokyo after opening an economic dialogue with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso.
Although the tone was friendly after the meeting, Japan and the United States appear to have decidedly different ideas about where their trading relationship should go.
Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact immediately after taking office, and Pence said Tuesday that the TPP is “a thing of the past.”
Instead, the vice president opened up the prospect of forging a bilateral deal with Japan, which Trump has repeatedly accused of engaging in unfair trade practices. The United States’ trade deficit with Japan stood at almost $69 billion last year.
A bilateral deal probably would require Tokyo to respond to politically sensitive demands such as removing trade barriers on cars and agriculture.
Instead, Tokyo is looking at reviving the TPP without the United States.
One of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s closest aides, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, suggested that the Japanese government might try to breathe new life into the TPP, which was meant to encompass 12 Pacific Rim nations that comprise 40 percent of the world economy.
Abe had previously said that the TPP without the United States would be “meaningless.”
But his government has re-embraced the pact because even without the United States, it may be the best option for Japan, said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence, a consulting firm. It certainly was looking better than the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an alternative bloc led by China.
Reviving TPP even without the United States would allow Japan to present itself as a regional leader and an alternative to China, Harris wrote in a research note.
“Second, it gives Japan some leverage over the U.S. in their bilateral economic relationship, while also leaving the door open for the U.S. to join in the future,” he said.
Pence and Aso will meet again this year, and said in a joint statement Tuesday that the talks “should generate concrete results in the near term.”
James Schoff, a Japan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the economic dialogue “aspirational.” There would also be a limit to how far any discussions could go until the Trump administration put in place an agriculture secretary and a trade representative, he said.
Before heading to Japan on Tuesday, Pence told U.S. and South Korean business leaders in Seoul that the Trump administration wants to restructure the South Korea-U.S. bilateral deal, known as “Korus.”
“The United States’ trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since Korus came into effect. That’s the hard truth of it,” he said.
“And our businesses continue to face too many barriers to entry, which tilts the playing field against American workers and American growth,” he said, adding that Washington will seek to work with Seoul to “reform Korus in the days ahead.”