TOKYO, JAN. 22 -- The warning today from a visiting delegation of Bush administration officials was couched in diplomatic language, but the message was clear:
Americans are angry at Japan because they think they are fighting Japan's war in the Persian Gulf. They are angry because they believe Japan continues to resist playing the game of international trade by everyone else's rules. And their resentful attitude toward Tokyo is fueled by the fact that the U.S. economy is in recession.
Put it all together, the officials said, and U.S.-Japan economic relations appear headed for an unusually stormy year. Adding to the friction, they noted, is the recent breakdown in multinational talks on liberalizing world trade. This combination of forces "could contribute to a move in my country toward protectionism," said Richard T. McCormack, undersecretary of state for economic affairs.
The bleak assessment came after two days of talks on a wide range of economic issues between a group of U.S. officials led by McCormack and a Japanese delegation headed by Koji Watanabe, Japan's deputy vice minister of foreign affairs. The talks produced little of substance, but the statements by the U.S. representatives underscored the perception that a serious rift is in the making.
And the remarks came despite indications that some steps are being taken to try to smooth over some points of the friction.
Japanese newspapers reported that Tokyo is considering contributing as much as $10 billion in additional funds to the U.S.-led effort against Iraq, on top of $4 billion already committed, and top ruling-party officials said that Japan should accept the sacrifice of new taxes to finance the contribution.
In New York, Finance Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto discussed the issue Monday with U.S. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, who said he was satisfied that Tokyo would provide its "fair share." But the precise dimensions of Japan's contribution have yet to be decided, and a fight may loom in the Japanese legislature.
Many U.S. critics of Japan have cited the trade imbalance as evidence that Japan's trade policies are unfair. So at a joint press conference today with the U.S. officials, Watanabe emphasized data showing a decline in the surplus and said it proved that "in Japan-U.S. relations, we do have success stories." The preliminary government figures showed that Japan's trade surplus with the United States fell by 16 percent last year, to $38 billion. Exports to the United States were down 3 percent in 1990, Watanabe noted, while imports from the United States rose more than 8 percent.
But the U.S. officials dismissed the importance of the figures, arguing that the decline in the surplus is attributable at least in part to temporary factors, such as the downturn in the U.S. economy, which dampens demand for Japanese imports.
In any event, "You really tell the wrong story when you focus on the bilateral imbalance," said J. Michael Farren, U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade. Farren said the U.S. government wants greater access for U.S. and other foreign goods in the Japanese market, not fewer Japanese goods sold in the United States. He said the fundamental problem is that Japanese industry is disinclined to import manufactured goods.
McCormark and Farren also stressed that U.S.-Japan trade relations would surely suffer if no progress is made in the multinational negotiations on global trade rules, known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Washington has been prodding Tokyo to open its long-protected rice market.
But "we heard nothing new" from the Japanese side on the politically sensitive rice issue, a disappointed U.S. official said.