President Trump has been fixated on Japans alleged exploitation of the United States for decades. Starting in the mid-1980s, he criticized Japan for protecting its markets unfairly against U.S. products while this country helped protect it from the Soviet Union and other threats. He took out a newspaper advertisement in 1987, claiming that for decades, Japan and others have been taking advantage of the United States, as a New York Times report reminds us. As historian Jennifer M. Miller of Dartmouth College has argued in a study, the origin of Mr. Trumps entire outlook on foreign policy and economics may be attributed in large part to his response to Japans rise from the ashes of World War II. His grievances against Japan, and his belief that tariffs could remedy them, amount to a template that he has applied, as president, to countries as different as China and Germany.
And so there is a special significance in the fact that Mr. Trump has just concluded a new trade agreement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Consider it a test of what happened when the erstwhile New York real estate developer finally got to act on his long-standing theory. Answer: not much. After threatening Japan with tariffs on auto exports to the United States the largest category of Japanese goods, worth $51 billion in 2018 Mr. Trump extracted from Mr. Abe a promise (subject to parliamentary approval) to give U.S. beef, pork and other agricultural goods the same improved access the Obama administration had negotiated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. In return, Mr. Trump essentially gave Mr. Abe his word of honor that he wont impose tariffs or import quotas while the two sides continue wider talks.
Mr. Abe must be a trusting man. He has to be, given Japans dependence on the United States for defense and other support. Still, he also can claim a victory for his own strategy of joining a deal with other Pacific Rim nations, equivalent to the TPP, that excluded the United States, and thus made it more difficult for U.S. agricultural producers to compete for access to Japans notoriously closed market.