Clinton's Visit to Tokyo Is a Time to Think Big

The US and Japan should be able to work out enough differences to focus on their common global agenda

SEVENTY percent of the public doesn't trust elected politicians. They think democracy isn't working very well, but they have more confidence in local government. A majority are dissatisfied with their public schools. Improving the economy is their top priority, but reforming medical care and welfare is also of concern. Government bureaucracy is suspect, along with big business that protects profits by laying off employees. Politicians want some government departments restructured or even eliminated.

The United States? No, Japan.

President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto have more to talk about during Mr. Clinton's Tokyo state visit April 16-18 than the unfair treatment of Kodak or Fuji film in each other's market, or how US bases in Japan could be consolidated.

If the past is prologue, however, we are likely to read more about US trade demands and Japanese difficulties accommodating our bases than about what we truly have in common with our most important partner: the advancement of healthy, civil, unpolluted societies around the world.

If both leaders elevate their sights, perhaps this can be avoided. They must conceive a new vision to guide them in dealing with a troubled world facing problems that cry out for greater cooperation from the only two global powers whose combined energies could surpass the sum of separate efforts.

Part of the problem is that Americans and Japanese are a bit fed up with each other after decades of pushing and shoving on trade disputes. True, it's good politics on both sides to talk tough. When US negotiators threaten dire consequences if their requests are not met, Mr. Hashimoto wins votes by stiffing them.

But this dampens the climate for a sounder bilateral relationship. Furthermore, enthusiasm in both countries to tackle the sorry state of the human condition in much of the world is seriously undermined.

Somehow Americans, while admiring much about Japan, still find it terribly different. And the Japanese, still in many ways fascinated by America, view with dismay (and some disdain) too much social disarray in the only country they believe cares at all about them. But consider what is actually going on:

Clinton proposes uniforms for American schoolchildren - just as Japanese schools talk about getting rid of them.

The Japanese want less emphasis on rote learning in the classroom and greater attention to student creativity. Americans want to focus more on basic learning skills, less on the peripherals.

US researchers fret about "overindividualism" in American society at the expense of community. At the same time, Japan moves "toward an evermore insistent assertion of ... individuality," according to The Public Perspective.

We are inching toward each other as both countries find more common ground to cope with post-industrial problems. Three years ago the US and Japan agreed on a "Common Agenda" for a rich variety of joint efforts on global issues, where such cooperation could - if properly funded - make a difference. The following are some results of the bilateral efforts under this best-kept secret:

Virtual elimination of polio from the Western Pacific; sub-Saharan Africa is next.

Educational projects on HIV and AIDS in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Zambia.

A crop substitution program in Peru to eliminate narcotics at the source.

A series of coral-reef workshops in the South Pacific.

Forest health monitoring in Indonesia and research on pest-resistant species in Africa.

New technologies to capture and dispose of carbon-dioxide emissions.

New designs to prevent tanker oil spills and reduce marine exhaust emission.

New emphasis on classroom electronic dialogues and distance learning via television between the US and Japan and, through their efforts, in other Asian-Pacific countries.

Wouldn't both countries benefit more in the long run by galvanizing their global agenda than by rehashing disputes over semiconductors and the like, losing what's left of mutual goodwill in the process?

In any case, the news on trade is good: American exports to Japan have increased by $15 billion in two years; the Big Three US automakers sold 13,000 more cars in Japan in 1995 than in 1994; medical equipment sales increased by 40 percent; the service sector showed a $16 billion surplus of US exports over imports in 1994 - in total, a 20 percent drop in the US trade deficit with Japan.

On security, too, there is progress. Japan has increased its host-nation support of US forces. It pays virtually all salaries of Japanese employees on US bases, plus utilities and construction - more than $5 billion a year. Meanwhile, Japan will sign - perhaps during the Clinton visit - an agreement to provide logistical support for each other's forces during peacetime exercises in Japan and on UN peacekeeping missions abroad. An agreement to share production of the advanced F-2 (FSX) fighter also is expected soon.

These are, of course, essential ingredients to a successful partnership and healthy economic relations. Problems remain, however: Japan's insurance industry is still too closed; our policies toward competition are too different; and the Japanese government's loosening of its hold on the economy proceeds at a snail's pace.

On security, North Korea's unpredictability and China's recent muscle-flexing off Taiwan may give Washington and Tokyo a bit more time before Japanese public disenchantment obliges the US to reduce its military presence there. Almost as many Americans are stationed in Japan as before the Soviet Union's demise (59,000 when sailors on shore about half the time are counted) - a fact neither government has explained effectively.

A more forthcoming Japanese response on trade, and a more imaginative plan on security (to be addressed by Clinton and Hashimoto) to equitably share military responsibilities, operations, and facilities would make it easier to shift attention in both countries to a bigger problem: a world in distress.

First, the fundamental underpinnings of the US-Japan global partnership must be more clearly articulated. Japan and the US want the same sort of world for their citizens, one based on democratic institutions and the rule of law. They both want a civil and humane society with a respect for the dignity and freedom of the individual. And they both want to help the rest of humanity survive and live more prosperous and creative lives.

It's this vision that should be highlighted in Tokyo. Let both sides settle as many knotty individual irritations as possible, but let them pledge a new partnership of global cooperation. The world is threatened not so much by China, North Korea, or trade disputes, but by global warming, pollution, disease, starvation, and overpopulation. The Tokyo summit could dramatically fix a new direction for the US and Japan, and, with their help, for the rest of the world as well.

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