For more than a year, American and Japanese officials have played down trade differences in order to bolster security ties damaged by controversy over American troops in Japan.
Now Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has made it clear to the Japanese that trade is solidly back on the agenda.
In Tokyo on her nine-nation world tour, Ms. Albright yesterday paid unusual attention to trade issues - talking auto parts with Japan's trade minister and meeting with leaders of the US Chamber of Commerce in Japan. At the same time, she reaffirmed that the United States would not reduce the number of troops in its East Asian bases.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Albright spent more time talking about economics with the Japanese than her predecessor Warren Christopher. "I think foreign governments are going to see that she ... believes that economics is at the heart of our foreign policy," he added.
Albright "believes that there has to be a unification of some of the issues in the [US-Japan] relationship - economics, security, and foreign policy - [and] that both governments understand that we need to put them all together," the spokesman said.
In a meeting with Minister for International Trade and Industry Shinji Sato, Albright raised particular trade issues and urged the implementation of existing agreements between the two countries. She addressed disputes involving autos and auto parts, civil aviation, procedures at Japanese ports, and semiconductors. Japan's trade surplus with the US declined by 16.5 percent in 1996, but in recent months it has begun to expand because of surging Japanese exports caused by a stronger dollar.
Trade has all but taken a back seat to security issues since September 1995, when three American servicemen raped a schoolgirl on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, where nearly two-thirds of the 47,000 US troops in Japan are based. President Clinton's April '96 trip to Tokyo was dominated by discussion of defense ties and steps to mollify Okinawan opposition to the US presence.
To some extent, those efforts have been successful. But the crisis sparked a discussion among security analysts, both here and in the US, over the troop strength at American bases in East Asia.
Yesterday, Albright put a damper on speculation that a defense review now under way at the Pentagon would lead to a withdrawal of some US troops in Japan. She told Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma that "the US fully intends to keep 100,000 troops in this region," Mr. Burns said.