Once again, the United States and Japan have gone to the brink in a trade dispute and, at the last gasping moment, tiptoed back from it.
Once again, Washington and Tokyo have managed to avoid letting commercial frictions undermine the essential bargain forged between them during the Cold War - that the United States would help guarantee Japan’s security in exchange for the right to keep troops on Japanese soil.
Now the question is whether that relationship can last - and for how long. How many more trade showdowns will it take before the two nations decide that economic competition has permanently altered the links that have bound the United States and Japan together since World War II?
The Clinton administration was prepared to call Wednesday’s agreement on autos and auto parts a watershed. “This breakthrough is a major step toward free trade throughout the world,” President Clinton proclaimed at the White House.
Critics, by contrast, view the deal as yet another in a long series in which Japan pledges to open its markets, U.S. leaders accept the promises, harmony is declared - and, two years later, new trade frictions send the two nations to the brink again.
“The Japanese are going to keep the United States on the string for a few more years,” said Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute.
“They are essentially buying time to milk the Cold War relationship a little longer until their ascendancy in Asia is irreversible,” Johnson said. “Japan has profited more from the Cold War than any other nation, and it has an enormous interest in preserving Cold War relations as long as the United States will tolerate it.”
In the very first days of his administration, Clinton served notice that his policy toward Japan would be different from that of his predecessors - both more confrontational and more focused on economic disputes.
When Kiichi Miyazawa, then Japan’s prime minister, wanted to visit Washington immediately after Clinton’s inauguration to symbolize Japan’s role as No. 1 in the panoply of America’s friends, the new administration rebuffed him, saying there first needed to be progress on the trade imbalance.
“Whenever there is a new administration, they always blow a lot of hot air, but after several months it quiets down,” Miyazawa grumbled. When the prime minister finally came to the White House three months later, however, Clinton went out of his way to underscore the differences between the two countries, particularly in the arena of trade.
Wednesday’s agreement on autos and auto parts may take that issue off the table, at least for another couple of years. Yet other trade conflicts are brewing.
While pressing forward with a more aggressive posture on trade, the Clinton administration has tried to preserve the essence of the broader relationship between the United States and Japan. It rejects the arguments of critics such as Johnson, who contend that the military alliance between the United States and Japan is a Cold War anachronism.
Like their predecessors in the Bush and Reagan administrations, Clinton administration officials regard the military ties, which provide America with bases in Japan, as a good deal for the United States.
Last February, in a formal statement of Defense Department policy toward Asia, the Pentagon said the security alliance with Japan was “the linchpin of United States security policy in Asia. … United States bases in Japan are well-located for rapid deployment to virtually any trouble spot in the region.”
In public, the Clinton administration has repeatedly claimed that intensified trade frictions will not affect the political and military ties between the United States and Japan. Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for Asia, said in a speech early this year that the United States had insulated its security ties with Japan from trade frictions.
Yet some U.S. officials privately acknowledge concerns that the imposition of sanctions in the auto dispute could have led to a general estrangement between the two countries.
“There’s been a certain lack of confidence as to where this relationship is going,” admitted one administration official. “I don’t think anyone in any responsible position in either government is thinking about changing it. But politically, there’s been a restlessness on both sides. … I think the tone will change now, for the better.”
Over the past two decades, every U.S.-Japanese confrontation over trade has triggered warnings of crisis. One typical news account: “Two trains on the same track, heading for a collision. A marriage on the rocks, facing divorce. … The sense of crisis is palpable.”
Those words, which could easily have been used on the eve of this week’s auto agreement, were actually written by a Tokyo correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in late 1989.
Nevertheless, some of the underlying political dynamics have changed. The Clinton administration’s trade disputes with Japan have been qualitatively different from those of its predecessors, and the change does not bode well for the two countries.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations, there were deep political divisions in America over U.S. policy toward Japan.
On Capitol Hill, some members of Congress smashed Toshiba computers, while others pleaded for understanding Japan. On the 1992 campaign trail, Ross Perot railed against Japan and the trade deficit, while then-President Bush talked soothingly about the importance of American security ties with Japan.
By contrast, during the Clinton administration’s dispute with Japan over autos and auto parts, the president enjoyed overwhelming political support for his tough stance.
MEMO: Critical eye Critics view the deal as another in which Japan pledges to open its markets, U.S. leaders accept the promises, and two years later, new trade frictions send the two nations to the brink again.