When Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone meets President Reagan in the White House Jan. 19, he would love to discuss world affairs - the new Andropov regime in Moscow, changing relations between the Soviet Union and China, the President's Middle East peace plan.
But he is going to have to talk about trade frictions and about Japan's defense budget - especially trade frictions. He is going to have to explain why Japan cannot allow unrestricted imports of American beef and oranges at a time when Japan sells nearly $20 billion more to the United States than it imports from that country.
As a practical politician, Mr. Nakasone is well aware that beef and oranges are important to many American congressmen, just as they are to Japanese legislators.
Mr. Nakasone has placed highest priority on restoring a sense of partnership to the relationship with the US. That is why he is going to Washington within two months of his elections, even though there were more cautious bureaucratic voices suggesting that May would be time enough. (The economic summit of the seven major Western democracies will be held then in Williamsburg, Va.)
That is why, if he has to talk beef and oranges in Washington, Mr. Nakasone will do so. He has just announced a long list of tariff reductions and other measures to meet the accusation that Japan's own market is too closed to others. But he is not going to open the market to America's beef and oranges, and he is prepared to explain why it is not politically possible for him to do so. (The new five-point plan to ease trade friction with the US and Europe includes tariff cuts, bigger quotas for some farm products, and simplified customs rules. Its effect will not be known until a legal review is completed Mar. 30.)
Quotas on both beef and oranges have been progressively increased, and there will most likely be another substantial increase when the current quota period expires in March 1984. Meanwhile, Mr. Nakasone hopes that American and Japanese legislators would be willing to commiserate with each other on the wrath they faced from their respective constituents.
More fundamental, of course, is what Japan can do about that $20 billion trade gap. As the chief beneficiary of the world's free trade system, Japan is anxious to keep the system operating and to head off the rising wave of protectionism in Western Europe and the US.
But there is not much Mr. Nakasone or any other Japanese leader can do immediately, short of so drastically reducing Japan's exports as to lead to domestic turmoil. The Japanese say they must have a substantial trade surplus with the developed nations in order to pay for the oil and other resources they import, mostly from the developing nations. Their overall balance, including invisibles, is only modestly in surplus.
Defense is a different issue but the American perception is similar - that Japan is being unfair by spending relatively little on defense and relying almost entirely on the security treaty with the US for its protection.
Both on defense spending and on trade, there are intractable domestic political aspects that restrict choices and make movement glacially slow.
But Mr. Nakasone, activist though he is, cannot work miracles overnight. So he comes to Washington with relatively empty hands. Bureaucrats in Tokyo stress the tremendous problems involved in reducing tariffs and in getting started on clearing nontariff barriers. Defense officials point out that a 6.5 percent increase in their budget this year may seem small, but that it was achieved at a time when other budget items were being slashed to the bone.
Will these arguments suffice to convince a skeptical American Congress and public that Japan values its alliance with the US? That it stands prepared to make sacrifices for Asian stability and world peace?
Mr. Nakasone can only try. He has at least got the ball rolling in the right direction. Both on trade frictions and on defense, there is visible movement, and promise of a great deal more.
He will have to ask for patience on the American side - a difficult thing to do at a time of rising unemployment and mounting government deficits. He will succeed only if on both sides of the Pacific there is a determined effort to get back to fundamentals, to think through the meaning of the US-Japanese partnership and what it really involves.