TOKYO — U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield predicted Friday that 1986 will be a difficult year in U.S.-Japan trade relations and that Congress, frustrated with Japan and worried about next year's midterm elections, could easily enact protectionist legislation.
"I look at the situation in Congress as being so difficult that I have come to the conclusion that there is only one person standing between the enactment of protectionist legislation, and that is President Reagan," the envoy said during a year-end news conference.
But Mansfield added that the President's position is bound to weaken "as the outcry in Congress increases and as the strength of those advocating protectionist legislation develops."
Alluding to the expected announcement in February of what is likely to be a $50-billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan in 1985, Mansfield said: "When the figure hits the front page, there's going to be a lot of grumbling and there will be a lot of pointing of the finger--not at the rest of the world but at Japan."
Mansfield, a veteran senator from Montana and the Senate's Democratic leader before his appointment as ambassador to Japan in 1976, said the Trade Enhancement Act, introduced in the Senate late this year by a combined group of Republicans and Democrats, including Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), has an excellent chance of becoming law.
The bill would remove some of the President's discretion in retaliating against foreign governments found to be violating provisions of the 1974 Trade Act and would result in quicker action against violators. Earlier this month, the United States took action under the act against Japan, which was maintaining quotas on leather and shoe imports in violation of GATT rules--a case that had been pending for years.
The ambassador predicted success by early next month in three out of the four areas covered by the so-called MOSS (market-oriented sector specific) talks, aimed at opening Japanese markets to U.S. exporters.
Progress in 3 Areas
He said that, by the time Secretary of State George P. Shultz meets Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe in Washington on Jan. 7-8, the telecommunications, electronics and medical-pharmaceutical sectors "will be in excellent shape." However, he said U.S. negotiators are encountering difficulties in getting the Japanese to drop tariffs on plywood and other forest products before 1987.
Mansfield cautioned against blaming the Japanese for U.S. ills, saying, "even if we got the Japanese to do everything we want them to, we would decrease our trade deficit by (only) between $10 billion and $15 billion." Quoting the late Walt Kelly's comic-strip character Pogo, Mansfield said: "Sometimes the enemy is us."
"None of us have to buy Japanese goods," he said. "We buy them because we like them." The 82-year-old envoy said he will be around for next year's economic summit meeting in Tokyo, scheduled for May, putting to rest rumors that he plans to retire soon.