Japan would welcome Britain to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “with open arms”, said prime minister Shinzo Abe, as he urged compromise to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Speaking in an interview with the Financial Times at his official residence in Tokyo, Mr Abe said Britain would lose its role as a gateway to Europe after Brexit but would still be a country “equipped with global strength”.
His remarks will encourage Brexit supporters in the UK, who see new opportunities for free trade outside the EU, while turning up the pressure on Brussels and London to strike a timely exit deal.
The TPP is a wide-ranging trade agreement between 11 Pacific countries, including Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Canada, Mexico and Australia. It originally included the US, but withdrawal was one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president.
Joining would be a way for Britain to strike new free trade deals with a large and fast-growing chunk of the world economy. However, it would be possible only if Britain left the EU’s customs union and gained the power to set its own tariffs.
“I hope that both sides can contribute their wisdom and at least avoid a so-called disorderly Brexit,” Mr Abe said, arguing that a transition period was essential for Japanese business.
Manufacturers such as Toyota and Nissan helped to revive the UK economy in the 1980s by using it as their base in Europe. But they have grown frustrated by the lack of clarity on Brexit. Several banks are shifting operations to the EU, while Panasonic has cited Brexit as a reason for moving its European headquarters from the UK to the Netherlands. “I truly hope that the negative impact of Brexit to the global economy, including Japanese businesses, will be minimised,” Mr Abe said.
He also hailed a “very fruitful” summit with Mr Trump 12 days ago, where the two men agreed to negotiate a new trade agreement on goods.
Mr Abe said the US had promised not to increase car tariffs while the talks were in progress, nor ask for greater agricultural access than Japan has given in other trade deals. But in a sign of Japan’s vulnerability, Mr Abe conceded he was not asking the US for reciprocal tariff reductions. “I don’t feel there are excessive tariffs on so many sectors when it comes to trade between Japan and the US,” he said.
In the original TPP, Washington agreed to reduce its 2 per cent tariff on Japanese automobiles to zero over 10 years, and its 25 per cent tariff on Japanese trucks to zero after 30 years.
The Japanese prime minister has gone to extreme lengths to cultivate Mr Trump — meeting him nine times and holding 26 phone calls — because the US alliance is so fundamental to Japan’s security. Mr Abe said he opposed any withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula as part of a deal to scrap North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
“It is my understanding that there is no such idea in the minds of the US side nor in the mind of President Trump,” he said. “The presence of US forces in Korea is, I believe, a very important element for the peace and stability of east Asia.”