AT a time when the United States and Japan could be acting jointly in response to the turmoil in China, the two allies are at arms' length. ``We thought we were on a real roll with China, and look what happened. ... Now, our 35-year relationship with Japan takes on more importance,'' says an influential US official with a sigh.
US relations with China have been deeply fractured by China's brutal crackdown on dissent. Now the US is taking stock of other ties in the region. It is finding that its chief alliance in Asia, and one of its most important in the world - its relationship with Japan - needs shoring up.
The reasons are complex and varied, but most are grounded in the lopsided economic relationship between the two countries.
In recent years, the US has been running $50 billion to $70 billion annual trade deficit with Japan. The US has cited Japan for unfair trade practices, and is entering yet again into negotiations to break down Japanese trade barriers. If those talks are not successful, the result could be specific economic sanctions against Japan.
In recent weeks, much congressional criticism about Japanese economic practices has been aimed at one symbol: a joint US-Japanese project to develop a new fighter aircraft - the FSX - for Japan's Air Self-Defense Forces.
A House of Representatives debate on the FSX agreement last week produced extraordinarily harsh rhetoric - rhetoric more appropriate to an adversarial relationship rather than an alliance. Member after member decried Japan's economic moves, calling them untrustworthy, ruthless, and unfit for a US military ally. Japan was simply out to crush US industries, in the view of many.
``Have we bought any US-made TVs, or cameras, or VCRs lately? Think about that,'' said Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana.
MEMORIES of World War II were invoked, sometimes subtly, once with startling directness. Rep. James Traficant Jr., an outspoken Democrat from a still-depressed Ohio steel district, began by wondering if ``Mutual of Tokyo'' was going to cross the Pacific to write policies on Americans' Toyotas. Then he let fly: ``The truth of the matter is there are brave and valiant bodies laying in Arlington today that are rolling over in their graves because they thought they won a war,'' he said.
Such words by no means reflect a majority House opinion. But on June 7 the House passed a measure, previously approved by the Senate, putting strings on Japan's use of FSX technology. The measure will likely be vetoed by President Bush, and Congress will not be able to override the veto.
But many just wanted to register displeasure with what they see as State Department softness on Japan. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California said he felt ``we have someone like Peewee Herman doing our negotiating.''
Administration officials point out that the FSX deal was a US idea. The Japanese originally leaned toward developing the new fighter on their own. Congress, for all its bluster, did not try to stop the FSX project entirely.
``I don't think [harsh congressional rhetoric] is a common or majority view,'' a US official says. Nevertheless, he concedes, it is troubling that it is being heard in Congress - and echoed by others.
``It is very disappointing that some of this language is carried by the media, and taken at face value,'' a Japanese source says. ``These words are emotional and simplistic. They aren't constructive at all.''
But they may well reflect what the US voting public thinks. Recent polls indicate Americans have come to see economic competition as a greater threat than military power. Last year, for example, the ``Americans Talk Security'' polling project found that 56 percent of respondents judged ``economic competitors like Japan'' a greater threat to US national security than ``military adversaries like the Soviet Union.''
But the Japanese people - aside from Japan's perceived national goals - did not engender harsh feelings among those polled. And despite the growing warmth of US-Soviet relations, Japan has not replaced the Soviet Union as the image of the United States' prime adversary. In the ABC/Washington Post poll 70 percent of respondents said they had a favorable impression of Japan.
William Gleysteen, head of the Japan Society based in New York, says there does seem to be a new edge to congressional rhetoric about Japan. His ``macro-historical'' explanation is that the US man on the street sees America being challenged by a new economic rival, and ``it hurts, in psychological and practical terms.''
The public does not see an easy resolution of problems now dogging the American economy, Mr. Gleysteen says. The judgment that economic competitors are now the largest threat to national security ``involves a great deal of self-doubt on the part of Americans,'' he says.
Congressional complaints about Japan could also harden attitudes in Tokyo. The Japanese government, after all, has for its part not been famous for sensitivity in dealing with trade and international economic issues.
``This could have serious consequences. Japan is not going to lie down and play the role of whipping boy,'' says Dr. Martin Weinstein, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Administration officials fear the US-Japan military relationship will now take a back seat to economic concerns. Transferring weapons technology may become increasingly difficult politically, analogous to the difficulty selling arms to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.
Aside from the FSX controversy, Congress last year was also critical of an administration proposal to sell Aegis radar technology to Japan. Japanese officials have expressed interest in AWACS airborne radar technology as well, but one US official says he would now be skittish about such a sale.
``There is no way you can ignore congressional and public opinion about Japan,'' says the official, who works on Japan-US military relations. Events in China are a wild card in US-Japan relations. In the short term there is probably little that either country can do to push the Beijing regime toward a more moderate line. But China's sudden lurch backward could show Washington and Tokyo who their friends really are, Asia specialists in the US say.
``We've tended not to put the [Japan-US] relationship in the proper perspective lately,'' says Gaston Sigur, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. ``We ought to press [the Japanese government] hard, but we have to recognize the many ways in which we work together,'' he adds.