THE United States and Japan are in serious danger of letting their enormously profitable and mutually beneficial relationship go sour over the persistent trade gap. President Clinton's Feb. 11 summit meeting with Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa could end in disaster for both countries. Ever-noisier recrimination on trade issues will inevitably damage public opinion in the US and Japan. It could easily spill over and threaten traditionally excellent relations on important international and security issues.
Mr. Clinton avers that our ties with Japan are ``the most important bilateral relationship we have,'' but he seems not to fully recognize its multidimensional character. Japan's importance to the US goes far beyond trade (it is already our largest overseas market). Without Japan, US security throughout the Western Pacific - and even to the Middle East - could be jeopardized. The close cooperation we have come to expect from Japan on numerous international political issues would be weakened.
Nothing is as essential to a healthy bilateral relationship as trust, but there is little of that precious ingredient left among negotiators. The American side insists on measurable results, so that everyone can see if progress is being made in deregulation and opening markets wider to US automobiles, auto parts, telecommunications, insurance, and medical equipment.
After so many years of Sisyphean trade negotiations, US officials feel that only specific tracking mechanisms will assure actual change in Japan. They are not sure that their Japanese counterparts will deliver tangible new openings without such an approach. The maddeningly slow progress gives substantial cause for this skepticism. Japanese negotiators believe they were burned by agreeing to quantified targets or goals in previous negotiations on semiconductors, only to have US spokesmen interpret them as firm ``commitments.'' To the Japanese, the numerical indicators the US wants are simply import quotas and amount to ``managed trade.''
This conflict over approaches appears to have adversely affected talks on specific structural and sectoral issues. It has surely poisoned the atmosphere in Japan needed to resolve them. The US insistence on measurable indicators of progress has caused even the Japanese press, 150 scholars, and major economic federations - all long-time advocates of more rapid trade liberalization - to join in circling the wagons against the US ``numbers'' position. How could it be otherwise, when the top White House negotiator suggests that his counterparts are more interested in protecting their ministries than in advancing the goals of their prime minister? (Such charges are better left to Japanese journalists, who often attack Japan's bureaucracy for its opposition to change.)
Although Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's stopover in Tokyo was a last-ditch effort to impress upon Mr. Hosokawa the gravity of the trade situation, it was viewed in Japan as exquisitely ill-timed. It was almost as if the US had chosen to step on Hosokawa's fingers as he clung to the cliff's edge for his own political survival, desperately trying to rescue his sweeping political reforms.
It is time to step back and reconsider our comprehensive, strategic objectives toward Japan and how to achieve them. There is a much broader, multidimensional context for any negotiations with Japan, which the US is losing sight of in its hypnotized focus on the trade deficit.
That perspective includes a host of important issues where Japanese cooperation will be essential. These include stemming the cash flow from Koreans in Japan to North Korean cousins should economic sanctions against Pyongyang be necessary; encouraging more Japanese aid to Russia and the Palestinians; and urging Japan to activate an avowed policy linking its development assistance to human rights progress and nonproliferation. Other issues involve building cooperation with the US on such global issues as population, drugs, AIDS, and the environment, where the 40 percent of the world's GNP we represent together could make a major difference; participating more actively in United Nations peacekeeping; and maintaining a defense posture and security treaty (with host-nation support far greater than NATO countries provide) that contributes to regional stability.
Of these, continued Japanese cooperation under the security treaty is the most important. Yet with the end of the cold war, its role and rationale are changing. Will a proud, successful Japan continue willingly to host (and largely pay for) American forces and bases when their presence is widely seen in Asia as watch-dogging any Japanese remilitarization? Or will Japan strike out on its own, no longer willing to rely on its old ally, whose public may soon wonder why, with the cold war's end, their troops cannot be brought home?
Who can say with confidence that a Japan willingly (and more equally) teamed with US forces in the Western Pacific will not be needed to discourage China, the world's new giant, from projecting its rapidly increasing power throughout the region? Or to deal with Russia, should reforms there finally fail and a more hostile, imperial tradition return to Moscow?
DESPITE a greater realization of Japan's importance to the US, most Americans, including too many officials, see Japan as just another important country we must try to work with in the world. While the days when US spokesmen would speak of our ``special relationship'' with Japan may be over, that relationship is not over for Japan. America is still a special place to Japanese people; they see their fate tied to ours. When the US fails to respond wisely and loyally, when we can be heard instead ``sticking it to Japan,'' we trigger confusion and outrage, followed by contempt among a people who look for their senior ally to act cautiously for the best interests of the alliance as a whole.
This does not mean that Japan expects special favors from the US any longer. The ``master-disciple'' relationship is indeed over. But the Clinton administration would be making a ghastly error to ignore how crucial Japan is - and will be - to the broader goals of our own country, out of an over-fascination with the trade gap.
By all means let us negotiate frankly and persistently with our Japanese friends; but let us do so with a perspective that embraces all our important interests - and advances them all. Japan is on the brink of almost revolutionary change. The Hosokawa electoral reforms would require a constitutional amendment if undertaken in the US. Yet we treat them as if Washington's insistence on trade concessions right now (in a two-year Framework Agreement only seven months old) should be the only item on both countries' agenda.
What Hosokawa needs most from the US at this point is a steady and patient stance. The US should be demonstrating that it recognizes that if this earnest, new breed of Japanese leader is successful in changing Japan's overly regulated economy and its excessively powerful bureaucracy, the way will be clear for most of the modifications we have been struggling for. We will have finally gained significant, tangible trade and fiscal ``results,'' but without the ``yardstick,'' or the usual ``gaiatsu'' (foreign pressure). Japan's political and economic transformations will have been achieved Hosokawa's way, not ours. Only then will the US-Japan relationship, so crucial to both countries, be on a steady track for the uncertain future we face together. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.