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A New Tone for Trade With Japan : Clinton, Miyazawa deal candidly with issues

April 21, 1993

"The Cold War partnership between our two countries is outdated." With those words, President Clinton signaled what could be a historic shift in U.S.-Japan relations. In his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Clinton demanded a "rebalancing" of the economic relationship between the two nations, insisting that Tokyo open up to substantially more American goods.

The tension between the two leaders was palpable during their joint press conference in Washington last Friday. But there was also a refreshing new candor in their remarks about the long-festering differences. A new openness should help smooth over the difficult process of addressing the longstanding asymmetry between the two nations' economic and security relations.

Pronouncements of initiatives and friendship are no longer enough for the new Administration. Clinton wants measurable results in bringing down the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, which now stands at $49 billion.

Past efforts to open up the Japanese market, not only to U.S. goods but to other exports as well, have had only limited success. New approaches are needed to hold Tokyo to its pledge to open more of its markets. The White House is considering, perhaps as the first step of a negotiating ploy, having Japan commit to specific import targets by industry. But that could send the United States down the slippery slope of what some call managed trade.

Clinton was blunt, demanding and to the point--all in marked contrast to the two previous administrations, which relied on security ties to cement the important bilateral relationship. Clinton, while acknowledging the continuing importance of American security ties with Japan, emphasized that it is "time to pay special attention to the economic side of our relationship." The biggest danger of the new Clinton approach is that the United States could compromise its longstanding free-trade stance in favor of measures that could be too protectionist.

Miyazawa, who has been visibly uncomfortable with the Clinton Administration style, has done his best to put on the appearances of harmony in meeting with the media. But the Japanese prime minister himself was unusually blunt in flatly rejecting a White House proposal that Tokyo commit to specific minimum targets for accepting more U.S. exports, noting that freer trade "cannot be realized with managed trade."

Clinton and Miyazawa agreed to work up an agenda for trade "framework" talks by July 7, when Tokyo hosts the annual meeting of the leaders of the seven leading industrial nations. It looks as if relations with Japan will surely not be business as usual during the Clinton Administration.

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