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U.S. Deadlines to Put Pressure on Japan in Talks : Trade: The negotiations are not expected to produce much. That could intensify anti-Japanese sentiment.

February 19, 1990|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The United States and Japan are heading for another round of serious trade frictions, this time amid a growing danger that the dispute could spill over and damage the broader foreign policy relationship between the two.

The immediate potential flash point is a spate of U.S.-mandated deadlines this spring on an array of thorny trade negotiations. So far, the Bush Administration has kept a low profile, lest it seem to be interfering with Japan's hotly contested elections, which took place Sunday. Now the fireworks are ready to begin.

Starting in March, the Administration faces four months of reckoning. Talks are to be concluded on subjects as narrow as trade in forest products and as broad as the full scope of the U.S.-Japanese economic relationship. Also at stake is trade in satellites, supercomputers, construction and telecommunications

U.S. and Japanese officials concede that none of the talks are likely to produce very much. That, in turn, is almost certain to ignite tempers in Congress, which is primed to explode at any new sign of Japanese intransigence.

William E. Brock, who was U.S. trade representative during the early 1980s, worries that relations between the two countries are at their most emotional and potentially divisive since World War II.

"I think we're on the verge of a train wreck with Japan" that could lead to a trade war and, ultimately, a diplomatic split, says Brock, now a Washington consultant. "I don't think the Japanese realize that yet."

The sparks from the competition with Japan will land on dry tinder. Polls show that Americans are becoming increasingly anxious about the recent surge of Japanese purchases of corporations and real estate here.

A recent Times Mirror survey suggests that Japan has replaced the Soviet Union in Americans' minds as the nation that poses the biggest threat to this country's well-being. If America's trade deficit with Japan begins to widen again over the next few months--as many economists predict--the Japanophobia here could intensify.

At the same time, Japan's own spectacular economic success has made the Japanese more self-confident--some say arrogant--and increasingly concerned that Americans are unwilling to put their own economic house in order.

Japanese politician Shintaro Ishihara, in a new book called "The Japan That Can Say No," urges that Japan break free of its longtime dependence on the United States, build up its military and use its technological advantage to achieve more global economic and political power. Ishihara is a member of the Japanese Parliament.

Although Japanese officials insist that Ishihara's views do not reflect the country's majority, they say his nationalistic tone has clearly struck a sympathetic chord.

To U.S. and Japanese officials, this much seems certain: Last year's battle in the United States over permitting joint production of the FSX fighter plane for Japan raised new concerns within the Japanese military about relying so heavily on the United States to supply its weapons. Pressure is mounting on Japanese officials to design and produce more of their firepower at home.

In this country, Congress is squabbling anew over how to divide the cost of maintaining U.S. military forces to defend East Asia. Liberals have dropped their traditional call for Japan to beef up its defense spending and are instead prodding Tokyo to shoulder more of the global burden for foreign aid.

'On Collision Course'

At the same time, the two countries are embroiled in a quiet but intense battle to take the lead in resolving the Third World debt problem, which had been a U.S. preserve. Japan has been moving to offer Latin American countries billions of dollars in debt write-offs in exchange for increasing political influence in the region.

Kevin Kearnes, a Japan specialist at the State Department who is known as a hawk on the trade issue, warns that "the two nations are on a collision course, headed for a continuing series of confrontations on trade, foreign investment, technology transfer, foreign aid, industrial competition, defense and a number of other issues. Both countries want to avoid the impending battles, but neither seems to know how."

It is easy enough to see how the U.S.-Japanese rivalry has developed. In just two decades, Japan has risen from a virtual ward of the United States to an economic and financial colossus, often at the expense of American corporations and jobs.

At the same time, the Japanese market has remained either closed or extraordinarily difficult for U.S. and other foreign firms to penetrate. While Japan has slashed tariffs and eliminated other government-imposed barriers, the economy's structure--interlocking business relationships and a closed product-distribution system--still discriminates against outsiders.

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