US Vice President Mike Pence will meet Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso on Tuesday, kicking off talks in Tokyo the White House hopes will open doors for US-made products and attract Japanese infrastructure investment in the United States. Before those discussions, Pence will join a working lunch with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for talks expected to focus on security issues amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. They are likely to be joined by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is seen as more hardline on trade than Pence and is in Tokyo for his own talks with Japan’s trade minister, Hiroshige Seko.
Tokyo is the second stop on Pence’s 10-day tour of Asia, a trip aimed at emphasising that U.S. President Donald Trump wants to boost U.S. trade in the region even though he has abandoned the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
“We thought it was important, particularly post-withdrawal (from) TPP, to let the region know that we haven’t forgotten about them,” a White House economic policy adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters travelling with Pence.
Advocates for the TPP, negotiated by former President Barack Obama and supported by Abe, said it would have dramatically reduced tariffs on U.S. goods and opened new markets. U.S. business groups supported the deal but U.S. labour interests argued it would hurt American workers.
Trump campaigned for office on an “America First” platform, saying he would boost U.S. manufacturing jobs and shrink the country’s trade deficit with countries like Japan.
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Japan had a $69 billion trade surplus with the United States last year, the U.S. Treasury Department said, expressing concern over what it called the “persistence” of the imbalance. Japanese officials counter that Tokyo accounts for a much smaller chunk of America’s deficit than in the past, while China’s imbalance is much bigger.
Trump has complained that Japan keeps its currency artificially low, although a Treasury Department report last week did not label Japan a currency manipulator. The issue was not expected to be raised in talks on Tuesday.
Trump also vowed to renegotiate existing trade deals to focus on bilateral agreements rather than regional ones. Pence said in Seoul on Tuesday the Trump administration would review and reform the 5-year-old free trade agreement with South Korea.
MORE TALKS TO COME
Trump and Abe agreed in February to have Pence and Aso, who is also Japan’s finance minister, open an economic dialogue.
The two sides were expected to agree on principles and a process for further detailed discussions between Japanese officials and their counterparts.
Aso told reporters before the talks began he would discuss a broad framework on two-way economic cooperation with Pence without going into any details in their first round.
He also said he would not discuss any bilateral free trade deal with Pence. The White House adviser said Tuesday’s talks would not prescribe a free-trade deal but talks might eventually lead to such negotiations.
Japan wants to avoid opening talks on a bilateral trade deal for fear of being pressured into opening up highly protected areas of its economy, such as agriculture.
“We ultimately want this to be about, how do we get more American products to Japan?” the White House adviser said.
Pence developed ties with Japanese business and political leaders as governor of Indiana, a state that is home to Subaru , Honda and Toyota plants, and about 260 Japanese companies in total employing about 60,000 residents.
“To some extent, we want to do for the United States what we did for Indiana,” the White House adviser said.
It is the top U.S. state for per-capita foreign direct investment from Japan, including higher-technology and better-paying manufacturing jobs, said Victor Smith, Pence’s commerce secretary when he led the state.
The Trump administration wants to attract more foreign direct investment, hoping to attract some with a $1 trillion plan to rebuild U.S. roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Pence will take that message to upcoming stops this week in Jakarta and Sydney. While no immediate announcements are expected from Tokyo, the White House expects a “handful” of investment announcements while Pence is in Australia at the weekend, the adviser said.
He is due to meet business leaders at each of his stops to reassure businesses that trade in the United States is worth their while.
“Part of the trip is the very big symbolism of listening,” the adviser said. “We’re not pivoting away from the region.”