After a long wrangle with Japan, the United States has once again obtained a trivial concession on a domestic sore point -- auto exports. The Japanese have once again come away uncommitted on a major international issue - security in the Pacific.
But to that familiar imbalance, there is now added a new and disquieting feature. On the eve of a state visit, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki hhas raised Japan's voice against the United States in a tone of unmistakable irritation.
Achieving a fair balance between this country and the land of the Rising Sun, to be sure, is intrinsically hard. The United States emerged from World War II as the only power in the Pacific by wiping out Japan with atomic weapons. The Japanese recovered by organizing their economy for international competition -- particularly in the United States, which retained a relatively disorganized economy.
The atomic experience provided Japan a place to hide on larger issues of international politics. Even now, the defense budget consumes about one percent of Japanese output -- a fifth of the comparable American figure.
Economic disorganization repeatedly led American officials negotiating with Japan to emphasize symptomatic aches and pains as distinct from underlying disease. For most of the 1960s and 1970s, the United States concentrated on such matters as limiting Japanese textile exports and promoting the sale of American planes to Nippon Airways.
In the last years of the last decade, events created an opening for a better balance. A surge of Soviet air and naval strength in the Pacific aroused apprehension in Japan. American power was drawn away from the Pacific toward the Persian Gulf. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Japan responded to American pleas for sanctions by curbing trade with Russia far more than other allies.
The Reagan administration seemed ideally placed to continue the favorable trend. As a free-enterprise enthusiast, the president promised to keep hands off competitive trading patterns. He and his advisers emphasized instead the importance of stronger efforts by the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union.
But the Reagan administration was pushed by American manufacturers into a negotiation with Japan on auto exports. At length, despite disclaimers, American officials went to the extent of transmitting to Tokyo numerical targets for "voluntary" limits by Japan. Specifically, the United States sought a reduction of auto exports from more than 1.8 million to somewhere between 1.6 and 1.4 million annually for a period of three years.
Moreover, the president -- under pressure from farm interests and in deference to a campaign pledge, but without any foreign policy justification -- lifted the grain embargo, which the United States had applied as a chief sanction against Russian after Afghanistan. Thus the stage was set for a reversion of Japanese-American relations to the familiar pattern.
The auto agreement was announced in Tokyo on May 1, with an American official, special trade representative William Brock, standing by as witness to the fact that a formal deal had been done. Japan gave far less than the United States had asked. The accord stipulates a reduction to 1.68 million autos during the first year; a lesser reduction the second year; and a wait-and-see position for the third year. The relief is not enough to be of significant help to the distressed American auto makers. The more so as the administration, in keeping with its ideological impulses, has not pushed the domestic industry to be more competitive on prices and wages.
The uncommitment on Pacific security was announced by Prime Minister Suzuki in a press conference with American correspondents held in Tokyo on April 28. Suzuki rejected point blank suggestions for a serious increase in Japan's defense role. He said: "Though an economic power, we are determined not to become a military power . . . we would not conceive of, for example, filling the void created by the Seventh Fleet moving to the Persian Gulf. . . ."
In addition, Suzuki took the United States to task for lifting the grain embargo. He called the decision "unexpected," and said it left him "baffled." But he made it plain that Japan would now move to increase trade with Russia.
I cannot remember, now can anybody I know, so clear a negative statement about the United States from a Japanese prime minister in the post-war era. While some tactical and personal factors may be involved, Suzuki is also saying that Japan is fed up with paying penalties for doing things well.
The Japanese are not attractive when they raise their collective voice, and it is easy enough to take umbrage. But Suzukihs remarks might better be received as a useful reminder. They are a reminder that the Reagan administration has not yet developed a systematic White House operation for managing the interplay among campaign promises, economic interests and foreign policy.