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US-Japan whaling spat threatens Indo-Pacific trade deal


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The US is embroiled in a spat about whaling with Japan that threatens its main trade initiative in Asia just as President Joe Biden prepares to host his Japanese and South Korean counterparts for a historic trilateral summit.

The US trade representative has been pushing Japan to accept anti-whaling language in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a 14-country trade deal Biden launched in Tokyo last year in an effort to counter China economically in Asia, according to eight people familiar with the situation.

The US pressure has sparked anger in Tokyo, with some officials suggesting that Japan could walk away from an agreement that it backed to encourage American economic engagement in the region.

One senior Japanese official said the issue was such a non-starter for Tokyo that the government didn’t even consider it as “an issue of contention”. He said Japan would not participate in IPEF if the agreement included any language banning whaling.

It has also exposed divisions in the US administration, with some officials opposing the approach taken by USTR, according to several sources.

The White House and USTR declined to comment. Noriyuki Shikata, spokesperson for the Japanese prime minister’s office, said Tokyo would refrain from commenting because negotiations were ongoing.

One person familiar with the situation said the Biden administration planned to remove the provision because of Japan’s opposition. 

Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Japan previously got around the ban via a clause that allowed whales to be killed “for purposes of scientific research”, which sparked criticism from conservationists and other IWC members.

Japan pulled out of the IWC in 2019 and has since only allowed whales to be caught inside its exclusive economic zone. Its whaling industry has struggled to make a profit without subsidies for research, while public tastes have also changed.

But the issue remains politically sensitive in Tokyo, which has led some US officials to argue that Washington should focus on making sure it finishes IPEF and avoid issues that threaten the deal.

Christopher Johnstone, a former US government Japan expert now at the CSIS think-tank, said the logic of including restrictions on whaling in the trade pillar of IPEF was “dubious at best”.

“IPEF is already an initiative of questionable value, and most US partners, including Japan, are participating only because they are desperate for US economic engagement in the region,” said Johnstone. “Using IPEF to seek restrictions on whaling makes no sense and only serves to alienate Japan, the partner Washington needs more than any other if IPEF is to yield results.”

Tokyo was instrumental in helping the Biden administration launch IPEF, encouraging Washington to work with south-east Asian partners to ensure broader participation in the agreement.

Japan and other countries are supporting the effort partly because they hope it will lead to the US joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade agreement that Tokyo salvaged after then president Donald Trump pulled out of its predecessor.

One person familiar with the talks said USTR initially pushed for language that would entail a complete ban on whaling. He said it later softened its approach, but that Japan remained adamant it would not support a deal that included any restrictions.

“It was a bit surprising that the US would put whaling on the table in a negotiation where it needs Japan’s undivided attention to help reach successful conclusion by November,” said Wendy Cutler, a former top USTR negotiator who is now vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

The rare dispute between the close allies comes as Biden prepares to host Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol for a summit at the Camp David retreat on August 18.

 



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