TOKYO — AS tensions mount over trade and defense ties with the United States, the Japanese are expressing nostalgia for Ronald Reagan. The failure to reach a deal last week in Washington on the project to co-develop a new FSX jet fighter has shaken Japanese assumptions that the Bush administration would be a smooth continuation of the Reagan presidency.
Japanese officials are upset by the Bush administration's insistence on linking trade and defense issues, and on renegotiating an agreement reached by the Reagan administration, largely in deference to Congressional wishes. ``If it were Reagan, he would not have complicated this matter like this,'' a senior Defense Agency official told the leading economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
On Friday, the day after a top level Defense Agency negotiator returned empty-handed from Washington, Defense Agency Chief Kichiro Tazawa treated reporters to a rare outburst of anger at the Americans. He said US Secretary of State James Baker III and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney have been less than supportive of the project, and that Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher opposed the deal.
The Defense Agency director general said Japan and the US had signed an agreement last year. The US government, he said, should ``keep its promise.'' Japan's position on the FSX has remained unchanged despite three changes of defense chiefs, Tazawa said. ``It is unfair that the US is raising objections to the project just because its administration has changed. I expect the US to act as a superpower.''
Japanese officials express concern that the power of the presidency has been weakened with Mr. Bush's succession. They worry they can no longer count on President Reagan's personal commitment to ``free trade'' and his emphasis on the importance of the US-Japan security alliance. Reagan was willing to take on Congress, to act as a brake on its protectionist impulses.
Congressional aides visiting Japan last week as part of a delegation organized by the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute retort that the Japanese are being unnecessarily naive about the American political process. No agreement such as the FSX deal, aides said, can be considered approved until Congress had its say. The revision of the FSX deal should not have been unexpected, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, a critic of the FSX agreement visiting Tokyo last week, told the daily Yomiuri Shimbun. Since last spring, he said, Congress had insisted the Commerce Department and the Office of the Special Trade Representative should have a say over security policies involving technology transfer.
Congress also insisted, Mr. Bingaman says, that no room be left for interpretation, as took place with the 1986 agreement on semiconductor trade. (Washington and Tokyo disagree that the pact guaranteed US firms a specific share of Japan's chip market.)
The FSX agreement calls for Japan and the US to co-develop a new fighter, based on the design of the American F-16. The Japanese will entirely fund the project, with the US receiving 35-45 percent of the development work and access to Japanese technology used in the plane.
American critics say the deal was a ``give-away'' of American technology without enough in return, either in work for Americans or in Japanese technology. THE Bush administration, in response to these voices, asked for ``clarifications'' of the FSX agreement. According to several Japanese officials, the US asked during the talks for a guarantee of a 40 percent share of the production work if and when the plane goes into production (around 1995) and for tighter guarantees of the flow of Japanese technology.
The Bush stance, the Japanese are beginning to realize, represents a major policy change. During the Reagan administration, when the FSX issue was dealt with over a four-year period, then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger strongly held to a policy that defense should be kept separate from trade problems.
``But this time, the US government has taken the trade issue into the defense cooperation issue,'' retired Vice Admiral Naotoshi Sakonjo, now a defense analyst, told reporters last week. ``This precedent might complicate US-Japan defense cooperation in the future,'' he worried.
The government was under particular pressure to get a deal before March 31, when the current fiscal year ended. Unless a contract to begin the FSX project was signed by then, releasing money already budgeted, they would have to redraft the current proposed budget. But that could give a grand opportunity to the opposition parties, which are holding up passage of the budget to try to force new elections.
There was surprise, those government sources say, when Defense Agency Deputy Director General Seiki Nishihiro returned from Washington without a deal. At the conclusion of the talks in Washington last Tuesday, they say, the US and Japanese positions were not that far apart. The Japanese had offered a 35 percent share of production but Mr. Baker held to a demand for 40 percent. A further Japanese concession, one government source suggests, was blocked by the bureaucratic interests involved.
The government went ahead and signed a preliminary contract which assumes the agreement with the US will be reached. Talks are expected to continue and Japanese officials say they are hopeful for a quick result.
But success is likely to depend on intervention from the political leadership of the ruling conservative party to resolve conflicting bureaucratic and industrial interests. Moves in that direction are under way, the government sources say, but the government's political troubles may continue to bedevil those efforts.