Japan 1990s–2012: weak political leadership in FTAs

From the late 1990s to 2012, Japan exhibited weak political leadership in its FTA politics. Irrespective of the party in government, Japanese prime ministers during this time period recognized the importance of expanding Japan’s FTAs. However, as described in Chapter 2,Japan’s FTAs from the late 1990s to 2012 were low-level FTAs with small trade partners that did not pose a threat to Japan’s highly protected agricultural sector. Japanese prime ministers during this time period were unsuccessful in achieving their FTA agendas. Weak political leadership on FTA policies is largely expected given Japan’s fragmented domestic trade governance (see Chapter 3). By definition, fragmented domestic trade governance signifies the lack of centralized leadership on trade policymaking. Whether the institutional fragmentation of trade policymaking and weak political leadership on trade policies are causally related is not clearly established. However, what is clear is that these two reinforced one another by the time the Japanese government began to actively pursue FTAs in the late 1990s. Japan’s fragmented domestic trade governance critically undermined the capacity and ability of political leaders to make and implement FTA policies. And weak political leadership, in turn, perpetuated and reinforced the institutional fragmentation of trade policymaking.

LDP governments (Late 1990s–2008)

Japanese prime ministers were well aware of the institutional barriers that limited their capacities to direct and guide FTAs. In particular. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) actively attempted to strengthen his role in directing and guiding FTAs. Examples of Prime Minister Koizumi’s efforts include the creation of a party committee on FTA to facilitate cooperation between the МЕТІ and the LDP on FTA policies and the creation of a cabinet council to coordinate FTA policies among the relevant ministries (Mulgan 2005,276-277).This cabinet council— called the Council of Ministers on the Promotion of Economic Partnerships—was chaired by Prime Minister Koizumi and reflected his intention to exercise stronger leadership over the FTA policymaking process. Moreover, Japan produced an FTA policy agenda under Prime Minister Koizumi’s leadership. In 2006, МЕТІ mapped out a vision for a comprehensive FTA in East Asia that involved the ASEAN member states, Northeast Asian states, India, Australia, and New Zealand (Yoshimatsu 2015, Japan’s FTA Policy and Regional FTA Development’). Later the same year, Prime Minister Koizumi’s Cabinet produced numerical targets for its FTAs, stating that trade with FTA partners should account for “25 percent or more of Japan’s total trade value by the year 2010” (quoted in ibid.).

Despite these efforts, Prime Minister Koizumi was not able to substantially weaken the decision-making authority of individual policy subgovernments in trade policies. The main reason was that the existing institutions of trade policy-making remained. For example, Mulgan (2005) notes that the Council of Ministers Concerned with the Promotion of Economic Partnership “cannot override the authority and autonomy of the ministries they represent” (288). While the Prime Minister and the cabinet came up with high-level frameworks, actual polices continued to be decided and implemented by the traditional policy subgovernments. In other words, the executive branch did not gain meaningful decision-making power on the actual trade policymaking process. The executive branch succeeded in assuming the role of “initiator of policy” but failed to become the “decider of policy” (ibid.).Traditional actors in the policy subgovernments continued to dominate trade policies in their respective sectors.

Subsequent LDP prime ministers that served after Prime Minister Koizumi faced even greater constraints given their short tenure in office. Following his predecessor’s FTA agenda, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2006-2007) pushed to expand Japan’s FTAs and was personally invested in concluding an FTA with a major food exporting country, Australia. And similar to Prime Minister Koizumi, he utilized cabinet councils to intervene directly in the FTA policymaking process (Mulgan 2008, 171, 175; Solis 2010, 228). Prime Minister Abe even considered creating a “Trade Representative Office that would merge the FTA headquarters of the [Minister of Foreign Affairs], METI and MAFF” (Solis 2010, 231) as a means to bolster centralization and coordination in the FTA policymaking process. These efforts, however, never reached fruition as Prime Minister Abe abruptly resigned less than a year into office.

His successor Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (2007-2008) also shared his predecessors’ enthusiasm for FTAs and once again committed to the 25 percent target set by Prime Minister Koizumoi’s cabinet in 2006. Prime Minister Fukuda’s cabinet even envisioned FTAs with the U.S. and the EU (Yoshimatsu 2015, Japan’s FTA Policy and Regional FTA Development’).Yet, when Prime Minister Fukuda resigned within a year,Japan had not initiated FTA negotiations with a single major trade partner such as the U.S., the EU, and China. Japan’s FTA with Australia, which was initiated during Prime Minister Abe’s administration, was also not making much progress. And Japan’s FTA talks with Korea, which had started farther back during Prime Minister Koizumi’s administration, was in a muddle. In 2009, FTAs accounted for less than 17 percent of Japans total trade in terms of value (Yoshimatsu 2012,195).

 
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