IN November President Bush abruptly postponed a trip to the Far East. Spooked by Democrat Harris Wofford's upset victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Mr. Bush hastily responded to criticism that he was inattentive to the United States's economic slump. The trip was rebooked for this week and next, but the president is still treating it principally as a matter of domestic politics.
That's true, at least, of the final stop in Japan Jan. 7-10, after visits to Australia, Singapore, and South Korea. Whereas the Tokyo stopover was originally planned to reaffirm continuing US-Japanese friendship in the post-cold-war era, Bush now intends to use it as a high-noon showdown on the trade deficit.
As his posse, the president has deputized the chief executives of 21 US corporations, including the Big Three automakers. Evidently Japanese political and business leaders are supposed to be cowed by tongue-lashings from the US industrialists on the inequities of Japanese trade practices.
It can hardly be denied that the large and persistent US trade deficit with Japan is attributable partly to restrictions on foreign access to Japanese markets. But these unfair barriers have been the subject of tough trade negotiations between the two countries for more than a decade - negotiations that have achieved some successes for American products. It's hard to imagine what's to be accomplished by subjecting Japanese leaders to the bluster of a Lee Iacocca.
Bush may regard a trade shootout in Tokyo as clever reelection politics, but it's unwise diplomacy. US-Japanese cooperation on regional issues, security issues, and, perhaps most important, global financial issues including aid to the former Soviet bloc and third-world debt relief is too important to jeopardize with a grandstanding ploy on bilateral trade.
To be sure, the president in Tokyo should make a firm declaration of American free-trade values and appeal to Japan's own long-term interests in an open global-trading order. The administration should also make clear its resolve to aggressively use all legal means to combat Japanese protectionism and unfair trade practices.
However, America's trade imbalance is caused far more by fundamental structural problems than by Japanese tricks. If Bush wants to show that he's serious about American competitiveness, he can do more to lower the US budget deficit and to encourage saving and investment. And his corporate companions could do more to replace American business's short-term profit horizon with a longer-range growth philosophy.