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Japan's lower house passes limited US trade deal

But it's unclear if Tokyo can get the US to drop tariffs on Japanese cars and car parts

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Opposition parties in Japan have attacked Mr Abe for the deal which they say is unfair. Critics say Mr Trump could drag his feet on further negotiations unless he is sure he can win more concessions.

Tokyo

JAPAN'S lower house of parliament on Tuesday approved a limited trade deal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with the United States, clearing the way for tariff cuts next year on items including US farm goods and Japanese machine tools.

But there is uncertainty over how much progress Japan can make in negotiating the elimination of US tariffs on its cars and car parts, casting doubt on Mr Abe's assurances the deal he signed with US President Donald Trump was "win-win".

Japan and the US last month formally signed the limited trade deal to cut tariffs on US farm goods, Japanese machine tools and other products while staving off the threat of higher US car duties.

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The government's proposal to ratify the trade deal will next be brought to the upper house for a vote but its passage in the powerful lower house increases the chances it will come into force in January.

The deal will give Mr Trump a success he can trumpet to voters but Mr Abe has said it will bring as much benefit to Japan as to the United States.

Japan has estimated the initial deal will boost its economy by about 0.8 per cent over the next 10-20 years, when the benefits fully kick in. It also estimated 212.8 billion yen (S$2.7 billion) of overall tariffs on Japan's exports to the US will be reduced.

But the figures were based on the assumption the US would eliminate its tariffs on Japanese cars and car parts - a major sticking point.

Without those tariff cuts, the reduction in overall US tariffs on Japanese goods would be a little over 10 per cent of the government's projection, according to an estimate by Japan's Asahi newspaper and Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.

After the deal is ratified, Tokyo and Washington have four months to consult on further talks, and Mr Trump has said he wants more trade talks with Japan after the initial deal.

But Japanese government sources familiar with the talks say the momentum to negotiate a deeper deal appears to have waned for now with Washington preoccupied with talks with Beijing.

"It's unclear whether Washington seriously wants to continue trade talks," one of the sources said. "The question is how much time the United States can allocate for talks with Japan, even if we start negotiations. There's limited time to conclude talks before the presidential elections."

Japan and the US already appear to have different interpretations of what was agreed on car tariffs.

Tokyo has said it has received US assurance that it would scrap tariffs on Japanese cars and car parts, and that the only remaining issue was the timing.

But Washington has not confirmed that. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has said cars were not included in the agreement, and that it was only Japan's ambition to discuss car tariffs in the future.

A US document only said customs duties on cars and car parts "will be subject to further negotiations with respect to the elimination of customs duties".

"The deal was left vague on the issue of tariff cuts on Japanese cars and car parts. Otherwise, we couldn't have reached the agreement," another source said.

There is also uncertainty about whether Mr Trump will drop threats to impose steep tariffs on Japanese car imports under "Section 232" that gives him authority to do so on national security grounds.

Mr Abe said he had got an assurance from Mr Trump that he would not do that, though analysts say the president could always change his mind, or at least keep Japan guessing.

Opposition parties have attacked Mr Abe for a deal they say is unfair. Critics say Mr Trump could drag his feet on further negotiations unless he is sure he can win more concessions.

"There's a chance Trump will put pressure on Japan on trade to appeal to his voters," said Junichi Sugawara, senior research officer at Mizuho Research Institute. REUTERS