Photo: AFP
The world trade system faces threats from many directions, economists say. Photo: AFP

Japanese trade officials are in Washington this week for the first round of ministerial talks, with attention expected to focus on market access for agriculture products and autos.

The Trump administration has already imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Japan, and has more recently threatened to slap tariffs of as much as 25% on cars from the trading partner.

US President Donald Trump and his top trade officials have indicated at times that the metals tariffs and the potential tariffs on cars, both of which cite national security as a basis, are aimed at pressuring countries to lower trade barriers.

There has at the same time been some ambiguity as to what the administration’s actual negotiating position is, with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer seeming to contradict the notion that getting other countries to lower tariffs is the ultimate goal.

When grilled by lawmakers at a recent hearing, Lighthizer insisted that granting exemptions in the case of tariffs imposed under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 would defeat the purpose. In his testimony, he indicated that the program was a long-term protectionist policy to build up domestic industries, and it would be ineffective if any country was spared.

In this respect, the Section 232 tariffs are distinct in their goal from the tariffs placed on a broad range of Chinese imports, which are explicitly aimed at getting Beijing to change its industrial policy, and not designed to protect specific American industries.

Lighthizer made the comments in response to confusion as to why metals duties were slapped on strategic allies such as Canada and Europe in the interest of national security.

Nonetheless, the administration did grant an exemption to South Korea in exchange for trade concessions. That deal is now in question, with lawmakers in Seoul threatening to vote against the deal should the US move ahead with tariffs on cars.

Against that background, it is unclear exactly what Lighthizer will propose when he meets this week with Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s economic revitalization minister. According to The Mainichi, the two-day talks will focus on the potential for lowering Japanese tariffs on agricultural imports including beef and soybeans.

The report also indicated that Lighthizer will urge Motegi to begin negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement.

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