Japan Isn't About To Be Bill Clinton's Silent Partner

A bit of colonial American history keeps cropping up these days when Japanese leaders talk about relations with the U.S. "Remember the Boston Tea Party," says one top Japanese trade official. "No taxation without representation."

Such comments mean that the Japanese are weary of taking verbal beatings from Washington on trade. They also want to get out from under America's shadow in foreign affairs. Unfortunately, their new assertiveness seems likely to run headlong into a Clinton Administration bent on getting tougher with Japan. The first act of Clinton's new National Economic Council may be to cancel the sale of a division of Applied Magnetics Corp. of Goleta, Calif., to Japan's Nakamichi Peripherals Inc. on grounds that sensitive missile technology would be transferred.

FLASH POINTS. The administration is also negotiating with John A. Rollwagen, CEO at supercomputer maker Cray Research Inc., to become deputy Commerce Secretary. Known for his tough talk in efforts to get Cray's machines into Japan, Rollwagen's appointment would ease fears that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown will be too soft on his former Japanese clients. "The Administration is letting the Japanese know there has been a change in policy," says Peter Morici, a trade specialist at the University of Maine.

There are more flash points coming up. Japan's trade surplus with the U.S.--$43.7 billion in 1992--will likely get even bigger as the U.S. economy picks up steam. And the U.S. may take action when the final data show that foreign chipmakers' sales didn't reach 20% of the Japanese market in 1992, as agreed.

But American muscle-flexing is likely to be met with a harsher response than in the past from Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Sozaburo Okamatsu, director-general of international trade policy at the Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI), says Japan "should take retaliatory action" if the U.S. applies unilateral trade sanctions through a revived Super 301 provision. Others warn that Japan won't get trapped into any more market-share promises. "Japan says 'we'll try our best,' but the Americans call it a promise," grumbles Makoto Kuroda, a former MITI official involved in the semiconductor accord. "It's stupid to think we can promise something we can't control."

Some Japanese do think the switch in U.S. Administrations could be an opportunity to improve relations by broadening them beyond chronically troubled trade issues. But Clinton Administration officials are skeptical. While conceding that it would be healthy to move away from the big brother-little brother syndrome, one Clinton foreign policy adviser warned that "progress on trade is very important to our being able to work together all the more confidently on the larger issues."

'RUGGED YEAR.' The U.S. is also wary of Japan's efforts to assert itself more in foreign affairs. Washington doesn't mind Japan's recycling some of its trade surplus in the form of foreign aid. But it may be another story when Tokyo takes practice runs at leadership in its own backyard. Japanese officials gripe that Washington insists they take a global leadership role--as long as it agrees with Beltway priorities. "Don't prod us too much to take initiatives," warns Kuroda. "If we do, you may not like what you hear."

So 1993 is likely to be "a rugged year," in the view of Japan specialist Robert M. Orr. The Japanese, albeit gradually, are becoming more outspoken. And the U.S. may be in no mood to listen.

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