WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The United States managed to win the Persian Gulf war while suffering very few casualties in the process. One of the most serious losses, however, may eventually prove to be the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Many Americans, especially those in Congress, reacted with anger to Japan's apparent reticence in providing aid to the allied war effort, particularly in light of the fact that Japan depends on the Middle East for more than 60 percent of its oil supplies. It was only after many weeks, and a close vote in the Japanese Diet, that Japan pledged $9 billion toward allied war costs. Many in the United States also showed disdain for Japan's refusal to send troops to the gulf.
Japan's reputation among the American people had already been sagging. A Times Mirror survey in late 1990 found that the proportion of Americans holding a favorable view of Japan had fallen from 70 percent in May 1987 to 56 percent in May 1990. But with the combined pressure of the gulf war and recession, there appears to have been a more precipitous drop in Japan's popularity. A poll that appeared in USA Today in March, after the outbreak of the war, showed that 31 percent of Americans would be ''less likely'' to buy Japanese products than before the war.
Just how the U.S.-Japan economic and strategic relationship will emerge from the current tensions is uncertain. ''One's reputation is rather like a crystal goblet -- when it's dropped, it's hard to put back together again,'' U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills remarked when asked about Japan's image in the United States after the gulf war. Full payment of the $9 billion promised by Japan for the war, Ms. Hills said, would go a long way toward repairing the damage.
Indeed, some analysts have even predicted that far from crippling the U.S.-Japan relations, the gulf war will eventually prove to have strengthened the relationship. Because of the victory, T.R. Reid wrote in a recent Washington Post article, ''Americans, now less fearful about their own nation's status, will have less temptation to flail Japan.'' At the same time, the ''renewed stature of the United States and its president has given the Japanese something their heavily regimented culture absolutely demands: a clear hierarchy.'' That hierarchy, the writer implies but does not state, has the United States on top.
There have, in fact, been several signs in the wake of the war that Japan is eager to smooth the waters ruffled by the war. On April 24, Japan announced that it was sending a flotilla of minesweepers to help in cleaning up the Persian Gulf, its first military contingent sent overseas since World War II. And U.S. trade negotiators also found the Japanese unexpectedly willing to make concessions in trade talks in early June, agreeing to open construction projects in Japan to foreign bidders and to extend the expiring 1986 semiconductor agreement.
But a few concessions in trade negotiations don't mean that Japan, awed by the American military performance in the gulf, is now prepared to simply follow the U.S. lead in matters of foreign and bilateral policy, especially when that lead conflicts with Japanese perceptions of their own national interest.
As if to make that point, the Japanese government has taken several steps in recent months that have infuriated American officials:
* In March, Japanese officials threatened to arrest American farmers who were displaying American rice at a trade show, claiming it was a violation of Japanese laws prohibiting rice imports.
* In April, the Japanese Foreign Ministry caustically -- and publicly -- criticized American plans for loans to Egypt and Poland as politically motivated and economically unsound.
* And in May, Japan refused to help when President Bush asked that country to ease interest rates to help the United States pull out of recession.
The uncomfortable truth is that relations between Japan and the United States will not be easily patched up, because the real cause of the split runs much deeper than a political spat over a regional conflict. Though Japan's actions during the Persian Gulf war triggered much of the recent tension between the U.S. and Japan, the war itself only provided the occasion for frustrations that are grounded in a more fundamental geopolitical shift: the U.S. victory in the Cold War.
The main factor that has bound the U.S. and Japan together for 45 years has been a security arrangement that simultaneously protected Japan against the Soviet Union and that guaranteed American predominance in the Pacific. In the interest of that relationship, the United States frequently overlooked Japanese ''misbehavior'' in the economic relationship, and Japan largely followed U.S. policy in its foreign affairs.
Now, with the Soviet threat for all purposes gone, Japan no longer feels as great a need to maintain the U.S.-Japanese strategic relationship, and the U.S. no longer feels as great a need to subordinate all economic issues to maintain its strategic position in the North Pacific.
''Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has now made it possible for Washington to put economic priorities first and to strengthen its leverage with the East Asian capitals hitherto regarded as indispensable pillars of U.S. security,'' observes the former U.S. trade negotiator, Clyde Prestowitz, in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
The stage has thus been set for increasing -- and increasingly contentious -- disputes between the United States and Japan.
Patrick G. Marshall is managing editor of the National Security Syndicate in Washington.