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PERSPECTIVE ON U.S.-JAPAN POLICY : Back Tough Talk With Firm Action : Allowing economic ties to evolve toward rivalry could be a tonic to bilateral relations and lessen interdependence.

April 15, 1993|JOHN ARQUILLA | John Arquilla is a strategic analyst based in Southern California. He is writing a book on the future of U.S.-Japan relations

The most striking element of President Clinton's emerging policy toward Japan is his declared willingness to act forcefully to redress economic disparities in bilateral relations. Two of his key advisers, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, have also spoken of the merits of pressuring Japan to open its markets further to American goods. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa will no doubt hear more of this during his current visit to the United States, but he will take American admonitions to heart only if he believes that firm action will follow from the "tough talk." On this point, the outlook seems poor.

The President's sound basic instincts have fallen afoul of the twin pillars of the conventional wisdom on U.S.-Japan relations. In the economic realm, experts worry that Japanese retaliatory actions might spark, as historian Paul Kennedy has written, "another Great Depression."

In the security sphere, concerns have arisen that tensions in the U.S.-Japan alliance might disrupt the East Asian balance of power or foster a resurgence of Japanese militarism, as the United States would no longer serve in the role of what Marine Gen. Henry Stackpole calls the "cap in the bottle." These views have dominated American policy toward Japan for many years. They also severely overstate the risks of change and underestimate the costs of maintaining the status quo in U.S.-Japan relations.

On the economic front, interdependence does exist, but Japan shows far greater vulnerability to disruption than the United States does. In merchandise trade, for example, 33% of Japan's exports go to the United States, while only about 10% of American merchandise trade goes to Japan. The United States generates nearly 75% of Japan's trade surplus. Japan accounts for nearly 50% of the American trade deficit. If trade were curtailed, Japan would suffer the loss mightily, while the United States would see tremendous improvement in its current account. Also, Japan's paucity of natural resources and dependence on trade makes it far more vulnerable to pressure than the resource-rich United States, for which total imports constitute less than 10% of the gross domestic product.

As to security matters, no viable challengers to American air and naval mastery exist in East Asia. Further, the United States enjoys good relations with all the key states in the region, except for international pariah North Korea. If Japan were to return to its old expansionist ways, an American-led defensive alliance would arise so quickly, and in such dimensions, as to make the coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein look like a volunteer fire department. However, if China develops aggressive aims in the region, why shouldn't Japan possess an independent conventional defensive capability? This would only provide long overdue relief for the United States, as some of the burden of ensuring regional security would finally be lifted from its shoulders.

As he confronts the looming crisis in U.S.-Japan relations, President Clinton must guard his domestic political flanks, even as he presses for trade and other economic concessions from Tokyo. He must forcefully rebut those whose habits of mind and institutional interests encourage them to conjure up fearful images of Japanese economic retaliation or military resurgence. The facts will help him here, but more than truth is required to still his opposition. The President must "go public" on this issue, as he did to gain support for his plan for economic renewal. Then, the certain outpouring of public support for a "get-tough" policy toward Japan will silence his critics.

Ironically, talking and acting tougher toward Japan may prove a tonic for bilateral relations. There have long been sentiments in Tokyo that the existing relationship is unnaturally, unhealthily close. Allowing economic relations to evolve more toward rivalry will lessen interdependence and, perhaps, encourage Japan to articulate more fully a foreign policy of its own, toward the United States and the world. If President Clinton can start and sustain such a process, with public support, he will have done a great service to both countries.

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