Japan's Abe meets President-elect Trump: Implications for climate action in the Asia-Pacific and the Paris Agreement

Japan’s Abe meets with President-elect Trump: Implications for climate action in the Asia-Pacific and the Paris Agreement

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit President-elect Trump this Thursday on 17 November in New York, on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ meeting to be held in Peru from 19-20 November.

Such an early visit from a sitting Japanese Prime Minister to a President-elect of the United States is unprecedented. Why is Abe so eager to establish friendly relations with the President-to-be Trump and his Cabinet in waiting?

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There will be two major agenda items on Abe’s wish list, both of which provide a turning point for US-Japan relations and the potential for a truly sustainable development path in the Asia-Pacific region.

1. The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement
A key plank of Prime Minister Abe’s geo-strategic ambition and economic agenda for the Asia Pacific has been the fast-track of the TPP agreement. So much so, the Abe administration forced an early consideration of the draft legislation through Japan’s lower house during the US election campaign at the expense of ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement, which was subsequently delayed. While Obama was a strong supporter and sponsor of the TPP, Trump has stated clearly his administration would promptly send the TPP to the dustbin. Without US ratification, the trade agreement will not meet the threshold for validity, which requires ratification among at least 6 signatories representing 85% of the GDP of all negotiating parties. Even party stalwarts in the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan have now come out saying the Agreement is likely dead in the water. This leaves Prime Minister Abe with no credible strategy to set the economic and trade agenda in the Asia Pacific in response to China’s rising ascendancy.

So what can Abe do on the economic front?

First, give up on the TPP. Greater freedom for multi-national corporations will only serve to hasten the race to the bottom, increase inequality, while restricting the ability of states to reduce carbon pollution. Furthermore, excluding China from such a framework will only serve to increase tensions in East Asia, creating greater reason for China to pursue its own rule-making – just look at the South China Sea – and create an economic agenda centered around Chinese sponsored institutions (ie the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).

Instead, Abe should take this opportunity to set an alternative regional economic path that does not rely on the United States and top-down rule making for the benefit of the few, but contributes to broad-based benefits for all. Such a framework must include cooperation with China in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. A new economic agenda needs to be set that will hasten the transition to a zero-emission economy by 2050 – engendering regional cooperation and technology transfer for a sustainable future.

To do this, Abe will need to give up on so called “clean coal” and invest heavily in renewable energy technology. While Abe may be tempted to follow Trump’s lead and dig in on coal and fossil fuel expansion – this will only serve to further isolate Japan and the US as climate laggards against the majority of global opinion, jeopardizing the success of the Paris Climate Agreement and a safe liveable planet for all.

In the US case, Trump may act to lift carbon pollution restrictions under Obama’s Clean Power Plan affecting the most dirty coal-fired power plants and ease leasing restrictions on public lands, however this will not in large impact the broader economics of coal – decreasing demand and rising costs versus increasing demands and lower costs for renewable energy development. In Japan’s case, continuing massive government subsidies for coal development overseas may prolong its decline as the energy choice of the past, however soon enough the growing economies of Southeast Asia will demand cleaner, healthier alternatives. Domestically, plans to build 48 new coals plants are completely inconsistent with Japan’s obligations under the Paris Agreement and will expose Japan to increasing international criticism for its intransigence.

Following Trump’s fossil fuel agenda is a sure path to climate catastrophe, economic decline, and stranded assets. Furthermore, deepening Japan’s fossil fuel reliance will give a substantial boost to China’s global leadership in renewable energy – giving China further soft power and market share as a champion for sustainable development in the region.

Instead, Abe could utilize Japan Inc’s reputation for reliable, high value technology and apply it to expanding Japan’s market share of renewable energy technology and exports – an expanding need in the Asia-Pacific. This could be done in cooperation with progressive US States like California and global technology leaders who despite a Trump presidency will continue to aggressively support renewable energy development and innovation. This would at once put Japan in a leadership position in international affairs and improve its economic prospects as renewable energy demands grow throughout the region.

This brings us to the second big-ticket item on Abe’s checklist.

2. China and the US-Japan Alliance
With Trump’s victory, it is almost inevitable that the United States will move toward Trump style “America first” protectionism. This will antagonize China, and may negatively affect markets including Japan as China may be forced to retaliate if trade restrictions escalate. Trump’s views on the US role in Asia is at best ambivalent, and a key concern for Abe is Trump’s repeated calls for Japan to pay the full price for the United States protection, and off-the-cuff remarks that Japan and South Korea should hold nuclear weapons to counter the threat of North Korea.

Whether this rhetoric will lead to any substantive change in bilateral relations with Japan is a moot point, however the Abe administration is anxious to emphasize the importance of the US-Japan Security Treaty and maintain the US presence in East Asia to counter China’s growing power and influence. A cold reception from Trump on defence cooperation in Asia may force Abe to re-think strategic relations towards a more independent foreign policy.

So what to do with China?

Forget about “containment” – build regional security through cooperative action to stop climate change. China is already much too powerful for a zero-sum game. Instead of using trade as a weapon and maintaining antagonistic relations through military build up, move Japan towards greater cooperation with China for mutual economic prosperity and regional security. Rather than try to control trade rules without China’s participation, Japan should work with China to bring about a more prosperous, sustainable and peaceful Asia Pacific region through increasing transparency and social and environmental protections for international investment in resilient zero carbon infrastructure – a win-win-win for national, bilateral and planetary good.

Using the Paris Agreement coming into force as the catalyst, Abe could start with re-evaluating Japan’s engagement with the AIIB as a new opportunity for Japanese firms to engage in building a 100% renewable energy-based Asia-Pacific. Continuing down the path of fossil fuel expansion will only lock in a dangerous warming world – the biggest threat to global security and economic welfare humans have faced.

Repositioning Japan as a renewable energy leader in the Asia-Pacific
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States gives Prime Minister Abe an opportunity to set an alternative geo-political and regional economic path that goes beyond the US-Japan alliance, and incorporates an ascendant China into a sustainable collective future for the Asia-Pacific. This means giving up on the TPP and coal technology exports while working with China to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement toward a more sustainable, peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region – based on the renewable technologies of the future.

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