During the Washington Doorknock our team attended a breakfast hosted by CSIS featuring Congressman David Camp (R-MI) Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a critically important leader in setting and enforcing US trade policy. Chairman Camp was introduced by Charlene Barshefsky, Deputy US Trade Representative ‘93-‘97 and US Trade Representative ’97-’01. Charlene said, “I think 25 years of US policy in Japan demonstrates that there is no silver bullet that takes care of our market access problems.” She said that not in her introduction but in an interview from the Bloomberg Businessweek Archive dated April 1997. So we’re up to 40 years and still no silver bullet. Having been in and out of Japan’s trade policy maze off and on since 1988 it was interesting to compare this year’s thinking among Washington players with the attitudes toward Japan of some earlier periods.
I don’t recall any meetings this year where any officials saw Japan as a threat except maybe to itself. Instead of the blame directed toward Japan during the heyday of bilateral trade friction there was a unanimous respect for the Japanese people’s response to the events of 3/11.
There was a near unanimous appreciation that we need each other’s success in Asia more than ever. And there was much recognition and even perhaps sympathy with the challenges faced because of political stalemate. Our visit came just days before Prime Minister Noda was to meet with President Obama. Officials were pleased to meet with us and Japan was in the news. But interest and expectations were subdued. Fifteen to twenty years ago, our trade posture with Japan was daily front page news. Now it has been pushed inside with shorter pieces as an afterthought to US Marine basing issues. The whereabouts of a blind Chinese dissident is much more compelling than Japan’s possible inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
One conversation that particularly struck me was with a Congressman who had been associated with some of the more heated “Japan bashing” of the days of trade friction. We presented our case for Japan’s joining the TPP negotiations. He was unconvinced that Japan had really made the changes necessary to join TPP, but he admitted that the focus in recent years has not been on Japan and that he would have to take a fresh look. I was impressed by his comments not because I expect that he has experienced a change of mind. But I was impressed since he seemed genuinely willing to entertain such a change. Given the 25 years that Charlene describes in ’97 and the 15 years since, it is no surprise that many in Washington are skeptical of Japan’s ability to make the changes we think are needed. But despite that frustration, we found little anger and a deep reservoir of respect for Japan and hope for the deeper and vital engagement of Japan with America and the rest of the region.