For months, leading candidates for the U.S. presidency had been blasting the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal as a bad idea that would cost American jobs. But here, at a fancy luncheon at Uptown’s tony Crescent Club on February 18, the view toward TPP was much more favorable. With good reason.
On the menu was a talk by His Excellency Kenichiro Sasae—Japan’s ambassador to the United States—about the TPP, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries that was recently completed but has yet to be ratified. The pact, in a nutshell, would slash tariffs and bolster trade among the countries, which include the U.S. and Japan. Listening intently to Sasae’s presentation were representatives of several Texas companies with a keen interest in smooth relations with Japan.
They included Holly Reed of Texas Central Partners, whose proposed bullet train between Dallas and Houston would purchase the trains from a Japanese company, and State. Rep. Rafael Anchia, whose Civitas Capital Group “helps build investor pipeline to … Japan,” among other things. Also attending were executives from Texas Instruments, which has multiple operations in Japan, and Toyota North America and Kubota, Japanese-owned companies that recently relocated to North Texas from California.
These companies are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Texas-Japanese trade. The Texas governor’s office reports that Japanese projects accounted for a whopping $19 billion of investment in the state between 2003 and last June. Japan is the state’s ninth-largest source of imports, with $6.35 billion in goods shipped to Texas in 2014, while Texas, the nation’s No. 3 exporter to Japan, sent $5.54 billion in goods that way during the same year. The Dallas Regional Chamber (which sponsored the Sasae luncheon, along with the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth) adds that nearly 70 Japanese companies operate in Dallas-Forth Worth, including such giants as 7-Eleven, Fujitsu Networks, and Orix USA.
In his remarks and later, during a Q&A session, Sasae contended that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to reject the TPP, since the treaty’s Asian partners are a great “source of future growth” for America. Ratification would ensure that the U.S. continues to play a leading role in the global economy, he added; conversely, if the U.S. is not a “part of this exercise,” he said, “it would not be effective.”
Replying to a question by Anchia, Sasae admitted that, like the U.S., Japan also is dealing with its critics of the pact, most notably in its agricultural sector. “There is some concern by the farmers that TPP might affect their work,” Sasae said. “They’re worried about the stronger competition that they might face.” The agreement would abolish existing tariffs on 30 percent of Japan’s imports in the so-called five “sensitive” categories: rice, wheat and barley, beef and pork, dairy products, and sugar.
Meantime, American critics of the free-trade pact—including Republican Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—argue that, in sum, the agreement would not be good for American jobs and business. Said Sanders: “It’s part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs [and] undercutting worker rights.” The U.S. Congress is expected to vote on the deal as soon as this summer.
At the Crescent Club luncheon, Sasae concluded on an upbeat note. “Am I optimistic about the fortunes of the TPP? The answer is yes,” he said. “There will be debate, but debate is healthy.” With protectionist sentiment growing ever-stronger these days, however, it’s likely the ambassador and others in the room were just a tad less certain than they let on.