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When Japan recently rushed to become the first country to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it did so in part to pressure fence-sitters such as Canada to fall in line.

"Even though the prospects of the deal coming into effect have become unclear, we are sending a message to the world about the significance of creating a fair economic zone," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after Japan's lower house last month passed the TPP. The upper chamber followed on Dec. 9.

No country fears the consequences of TPP's demise more than Japan. U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's stated intention to erase his country's signature on the far-reaching deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries will inevitably increase the economic dependence of Asian Pacific countries, including Japan, on China. But while Japan is eager to boost trade with China, it wants to set the rules, not the other way around.

The TPP, which advocates call a 21st century trade deal that raises standards for global commerce, was conceived in part to encourage China to democratize its state-led economy in order to gain eventual membership in the TPP club. The deal's apparent unravelling at the hands of a protectionist Trump administration, and an ambivalent Canadian one, has put Japan on the offensive to save the agreement.

Mr. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Mr. Trump after the Nov. 8 U.S. election and his government has continued to reach out to the Trump transition team in the hopes of salvaging the deal. It is also asking other TPP signatories, including Canada, to send a message to Mr. Trump by ratifying the deal themselves.

For Japan, the stakes could not be higher. Mr. Abe's signature economic recovery package has had some measure of success, with stimulative monetary and fiscal policies boosting asset prices and consumer confidence. But the so-called third arrow of Abenomics – structural reforms to increase Japan's competitiveness – has stalled. TPP would provide the impetus for implementing those reforms.

If Mr. Trump follows through with his threat to kill the TPP – the current deal cannot take effect without U.S. ratification – the United States will end up isolated as Asian countries are forced by necessity to draw closer to China, warns Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative think tank.

"The U.S. cannot simply stop this dynamic of economic integration simply because it cannot engage with this region," argues Mr. Funabashi, a former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading newspapers.

"That vacuum will be filled immediately and China does not hide its enthusiasm for filling it … China's approach will be to strengthen Sino-centric vertical integration with China at the top."

China is already Japan's top trading partner and has been pushing its own alternative to the TPP, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Despite its name, RCEP, is nowhere near as comprehensive as TPP, with lower standards and greater carve-outs for state-owned enterprises.

Still, Mr. Abe last month conceded that "there will be a pivot to RCEP if TPP doesn't go forward." It was a warning to Mr. Trump that Japan cannot wait indefinitely for him to come around.

"Japan being in Asia and having China next door has to deal with RCEP. It's now the only game in town," says Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at the Tokyo campus of U.S.-based Temple University. "Yes, China will be the rules-setter. But at least there will be rules."

Mr. Funabashi suggests another alternative if TPP stalls. "The other 11 TPP countries, including Canada, should form a "Gold 11" caucus of trade liberalization promoters in Asia to uphold the standards of [the World Trade Organization] and give strong incentives to the U.S. administration to reconsider their protectionism."

For now, that appears to be Mr. Abe's goal as he pushes other TPP partners to ratify the deal. His government also prefers to wait for the agreement's fate to play out before deciding whether to pursue bilateral free-trade negotiations with other TPP countries, including Canada.

Canada and Japan began talks in 2012 on a bilateral FTA, dubbed the Canada-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement. But Japan put the negotiations on ice in 2015 and the Liberal government in Ottawa has not sought to restart them as it ponders its own support for the TPP, which was negotiated by the previous Conservative administration.

Itsunori Onodera, a Liberal Democratic member of Japan's lower house and former defence minister, is one Japanese politician who favours kick starting CJEPA talks in the event of TPP's demise.

"In my [Miyagi] constituency, we have a lot of livestock producers and they're fed with Canadian grain," he notes.

"If Donald Trump remains negative on the TPP, it will be important to further our trade relations bilaterally." Still, that is Plan B. Japan's Plan A remains saving the TPP.

Konrad Yakabuski visited Japan this month on a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship.

Follow Konrad Yakabuski on Twitter: @konradyakabuskiOpens in a new window

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