Picketing electronics but not sardines. The controversial Toshiba-Kongsberg case

AMERICAN handling of the controversy surrounding the sale to the Soviet Union of submarine propeller milling machines by Japan's Toshiba Machine Company and related computer software by Norway's Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk is illustrative of an unsettling double standard in United States foreign policy. This episode did considerable damage to US-Japanese security and trade relations. Continuing American reactions to it could do even more damage. Because this violation of Cocom trade restrictions reportedly caused real injury to Western strategic interests by enabling the Soviet Navy to build quieter and less detectable submarines, it aroused a new - and more serious - wave of broad-scale US animosity toward Japan's trade practices. (Cocom is a multination coordinating committee made up of the US, its NATO allies, and Japan designed to control strategic exports.)

Perhaps more important, the willingness of a major Japanese company to sell sensitive technology to the West's prime adversary raised serious questions about Japan's reliability as an ally.

Precisely how this mess will play itself out remains to be seen. However, one barely noticed, but profoundly important, facet of this episode is already evident. This is the very different ways in which Americans reacted to Japanese actions versus our responses to Norwegian actions. In the Japanese case, we witnessed widely publicized symbolic protests by US congressmen venting their frustrations with both Toshiba Machine and Japan via public smashing of Toshiba Electric consumer products, threats to ban all Toshiba exports to the US, and an escalation of general anti-Japanese sentiments. In sharp contrast, complaints about Kongsberg and Norway were rare and - to my knowledge - no one suggested taking out US unhappiness on sardines or other Norwegian exports.

AS a specialist in US-Japan security issues, with particular interest in naval affairs, I find the situation intriguing. It is made more so because I am a Norwegian-American with ancestral roots near Kongsberg. Though I am personally pleased that Norway escaped the ire many Americans inflicted on Japan, there is reason to be concerned about the apparent US willingness to engage in a double standard.

Why are Americans so ready to ``bash'' Japan, but not Norway? Part of the reason concerns the differentials between these two US allies and trade partners. US-Norwegian relations are not marked by serious trade frictions, and Oslo's attitudes toward collective security within NATO are very much in tune with Washington's. US-Japan relations, on the other hand, are seriously marred by egregious trade deficit problems. Moreover, despite progress in Tokyo under Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan remains a decidedly ambivalent ally which is emphatically not committed to collective security and - in a most profound manner - does not share with the US major perceptions of external threats from the USSR.

These facets of the different US handling of the Toshiba-Kongsberg case are perhaps understandable. There are, however, two less comprehensible aspects of American reactions. The US faces trade challenges and deficits from a variety of Asian and European countries, plus Canada. While the trade problems with Japan are unusually large and Japan's attitudes are particularly vexing, these alone do not adequately explain the emotional responses Americans commonly aim at Japan but not at other trade partners.

Many Japanese detect a more sinister side to American criticism, suspecting there is a lingering legacy of anti-Japanese sentiment dating from World War II. These suspicions feed the contemporary resurgence in Japanese chauvinism and nationalism.

It would be foolish to suggest that stereotypical perceptions of Japan have no validity. Stereotypical adjectives can be as accurately applied to a variety of Europeans, but they rarely are, because Americans do not assign these stereotypes to most Europeans. Against that background, Americans should be careful not to pick on Japan excessively in ways that signal overtones of a racial or ethnic double standard in American foreign policy.

Just as Americans should consciously avoid an ethnic double standard in their foreign policy, so, too, should they eschew it in making foreign policy. Few Americans have serious concerns about Euro-Americans speaking out on, or becoming involved in, some foreign policy issue pertaining to the land of their ancestors. Afro-Americans, Arab-Americans, and Jewish-Americans are similarly unconstrained in their activism regarding US policy toward Africa and the Middle East. In the case of Asian-Americans, however, an unfortunate double standard lingers.

Though there are exceptions, as there are among other hyphenated Americans, most Asian-Americans are ``red, white, and blue'' Americans who have as much right to be involved in shaping and criticizing US policy toward Asia as they have to comment on US policy toward any other region of the world.

That is not yet the way things are, however. For example, Japanese-American congressmen and scholars remain generally cautious about speaking out on US policy toward Japan, lest they be branded as excessively ``Japanese.'' Neither I, nor any other Norwegian-American specialist on Asia or Scandinavia, is likely to feel any inhibitions about assuming pro or con advocacy positions on either Toshiba or Kongsberg's culpability in this case. A comparable Japanese-American specialist in Asian or Scandinavian affairs may be equally unfettered about speaking out on European affairs, but would - of necessity - consider the ethnic connotations in US society of any assessments he/she might offer on US policy toward the Toshiba-Kongsberg case, or any other Japan-related issue.

All too often the minority of Asian-Americans who are professional specialists in Asian affairs are used by US elites primarily as a pool of technical advisers available behind the scenes, but they rarely get close to actual policymaking. Such an implicit, or explicit, double standard has no place in contemporary America. If a qualified Norwegian-American be appointed as ambassador to Oslo (or elsewhere) to represent all Americans, so, too, should a qualified Japanese-American be a fully legitimate US ambassador to Tokyo (or Peking, Seoul, Oslo, or Ouagadougou) to represent all Americans.

THE US suffers from its shortsightedness in not utilizing to the fullest extent the large pool of competent Asian-American expertise in shaping all facets of our foreign policy.

Similarly, at the mass level, there is no reason average Japanese-Americans (or other Asian-Americans) should not be accorded an equal voice in what is, or is not, good for the US versus Japan or other Asian countries. Their legitimate right to speak out as Americans - be they fourth- or fifth-generation Americans or naturalized citizens - should not be second-guessed because of their ancestry.

Most flaps in US-Japan relations do not make these points so clearly as the Toshiba-Kongsberg incident did. Uneven US handling of this episode, and a tacit American double standard in Asia versus European affairs, may yet make this a valuable experience if we can learn from our mistakes.

Edward A. Olsen is associate professor of national-security affairs and coordinator of Asian Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

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