Hoping to avoid accusations that it is using the Persian Gulf crisis to stoke its export machine, Japan plans to "buy American" with much of the $2 billion it has pledged to the U.S.-led forces in the region for equipment and transportation, according to Japanese and U.S. officials.
Japanese purchases in the United States are likely to include trucks, computers, television sets and prefabricated barracks, said Yukio Okamoto, a senior Japanese diplomat who last week discussed the program in Washington with officials from the State Department, Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We cannot afford to be seen as taking another commercial advantage in assisting your forces," Okamoto said after the meetings.
For decades, the smooth military ties that Japan and the United States maintain have been largely unruffled by tensions over trade. With this procurement policy, Japan appears to hope to extend some of the military goodwill into other spheres of the relationship, as well as knock a bit off the U.S. trade deficit with Japan.
Whether goodwill will follow is unclear, however. Commerce Under-secretary J. Michael Farren, in response to a question, last week told a conference organized by the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank, that the Bush administration would not respond favorably to any efforts by Japan to use its overall gulf contributions as leverage in trade talks.
Some administration officials and members of Congress accuse Japan of letting the United States make most of the sacrifices in a region in which Japan has an equal if not larger stake. Critics joke that while it took Japan almost two months to ship a boatload of Japanese-built four-wheel-drive vehicles to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, there was no corresponding delay in exporting cars to the United States. Critics have also accused Japan of using the gulf crisis to promote exports generally.
President Bush and the State Department, however, have praised Japanese efforts. Despite constitutional constraints that have stopped it from sending soldiers or weaponry to the gulf, Japan's defenders say, the country has promised $2 billion in aid to the multilateral force and $2 billion in aid, most of it to be low-cost loans, to "front line" states such as Egypt and Turkey.
Late last month, 800 Japanese-built four-wheel-drive vehicles were delivered to Saudi Arabia for use by U.S. forces. In addition, about 125 Japanese trucks that were already in Saudi Arabia when the crisis broke out two months ago are being turned over to U.S. forces to carry water and refrigerated goods. Japanese airliners have moved refugees and Japanese funds have help support refugees in Jordan.
Getting more trucks is a major subject of Japanese discussion with Centcom, the U.S. headquarters for the gulf operation.
"We want to make the majority of the purchases in the United States," Okamoto said last week, adding that the Japanese government had been in touch with a U.S. manufacturer.
Buying and shipping prefab housing for U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom now live in tents, will be a major Japanese objective as well, Okamoto said. "From a trade friction point of view," he said, "an American contractor is preferable."
Okamoto said purchases would be made in the United States even in cases in which the money might go further in Japan. A U.S. official familiar with the talks described Japan's decision to shop in the United States as a "generous gesture" from Japanese officials and said that "right from the start, that was what they were talking about."