Trump may struggle to land a bilateral trade deal with Japan

Trump to push for bilateral trade deal with Japan's Abe
Trump to push for bilateral trade deal with Japan's Abe

President Donald Trump may have long promoted his reputation as a deal-maker, but the chances of landing a bilateral trade deal with Japan appear slim at best, analysts said.

Trade is likely to be on the agenda as Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet on Friday and Saturday at the White House and at the president's Florida country club, Mar-a-Lago.

Abe's visit follows Trump's decision last month to formally pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have created a 12-country Pacific rim free-trade bloc, including Japan. The TPP, which was negotiated during President Barack Obama's term in office, hadn't yet been voted on or ratified by Congress.

Trump has also recently claimed, with little evidence, that Japan has been manipulating its currency for trade advantage. The U.S. leader has also complained about his country's trade deficit with Japan, pointing particularly to an imbalance in auto sales: Japan exports more than a million cars to the U.S. annually, while the U.S. sells a little more than 10,000 vehicles a year in Japan.

But while the multilateral TPP may never be revived, Trump's stated preference for bilateral deals will struggle to gain too much traction with Japan.

Some analysts were skeptical that Abe would be quick to enter talks on a bilateral deal.

Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC's "The Rundown" on Friday that Abe was more likely to try to "contain" trade issues.

"[Abe] can't just give and give and give a blank check to Trump," Harris said.

Abe needs to know "just how different a Trump vision for a bilateral free-trade agreement would be from the agreement the U.S. and Japan reached within TPP," Harris said. "I think Abe needs to get much more information on these issues before he can commit to really throwing Japan into bilateral negotiations."

Other analysts agreed.

Japan has to depend on US: Analyst
Japan has to depend on US: Analyst

"Abe will work on convincing Trump that continued corporate cooperation will promise greater employment opportunities for Americans in the U.S.," said Shawlin Chaw, a senior analyst at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in U.S.-Japan relations right now. Abe wants to ensure a sound footing for the future of bilateral relations to see how much he can push and prod the U.S. for something larger," she said.

There's another reason a bilateral deal may be tough: History.

Terada Takashi, a visiting professor specializing in international relations at National University of Singapore, said that in the 1980s and 1990s, Japan made a lot of concessions to the U.S., while the U.S. ignored many of Japan's requests, creating a "poor" relationship.

The difficulties of negotiating a trade deal with a much-larger partner may have spurred some of Japan's enthusiasm for TPP.

"In a multilateral [deal], smaller nations can create a bloc to negotiate," countering "powerful leverage," noted Takashi.

Trump's walking away from TPP also damaged at least some of Abe's structural reform drives, which may sour the outlook for a bilateral deal.

"There will be an impact on Abe's ability to push through some reforms," particularly in the agriculture and health care sectors, Control Risks' Chaw said. "Without the promise of a bigger export market, it's more difficult."

One example is that Abe's administration managed to push through some liberalizing measures for the tightly controlled agriculture sector with the promise of more to come to comply with TPP, in part by dangling the prospect of access to large export markets such as the U.S.

Reforming the agriculture sector has long been politically unpalatable in Japan, even though it's widely believed to be necessary in a country where food prices are considered relatively high because of the segment's inefficiencies.

Without reform, agriculture in Japan may become even more inefficient.

Local women dressed in 'Saotome' traditional rice planting costumes stand at the rice field during the 'Hanataue' rice planting ritual on June 5, 2016 in Kitahiroshima, Hiroshima, Japan.
Buddhika Weerasinghe | Getty Images

Outside of Hokkaido, the majority of farms are less than 3 hectares (7.4 acres) in size, with the average size less than 1 ha, according to data cited in a 2009 OECD report. In Hokkaido, the average farm size is still only 16.45 ha (40.6 acres), the data show.

Government data indicate that the average age of the nation's farmers is over 66 years, with many lacking successors.

But without TPP, further liberalization may be off the table, and Japan media have reported recently that Abe said that even in a bilateral deal, Japan would protect key agricultural products, such as rice, beef and wheat.

"Probably, Japanese farmers are not necessarily so much encouraging the more liberalized movement," noted Terada Takashi, a visiting professor specializing in international relations at National University of Singapore.

Takashi noted that without TPP, Australian and American rice farmers will likely now need to pay higher tariffs to access the Japanese market.

That was also noted by other analysts.

"It's difficult for Japan to open the agriculture market without reciprocity from the U.S. on other sectors," Control Risks' Chaw said. "U.S. agriculture companies will face resistance and limitations."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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