Clinton may listen for the answer 'no' in the subtle Japanese intake of breath

April 16, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- There could be a lot of diplomatic heavy breathing in the Oval Office today when President Clinton meets Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

Mr. Clinton, who recently accused the Japanese of saying "yes" when they mean "no," will have to listen as carefully to Mr. Miyazawa's tell-tale inhalations as to his words.

"There is a sucking in of breath at certain times when something is very difficult, or there is something they don't think they are going to be able to do," said Arthur J. Anderson, president of the Japan Economic Institute of America, a Japanese government funded research group in Washington.

Mr. Miyazawa, 73, is likely to have difficulty with much of what Mr. Clinton tells him, whether it is to open Japanese markets wider to American imports, increase Japanese aid to Russia or enlarge Japan's geopolitical role in the world.

And Mr. Clinton, 46, will have his own difficulties in deciding just what the Japanese have agreed to, if anything. Even Mr. Miyazawa has acknowledged that the Japanese don't like to say "no," and, according to Mr. Anderson: "When they say 'yes,' there's usually another phrase that goes along with it, which means they have not agreed."

"They will certainly have a lot to learn from each other," the Japanese newspaper Asahi said yesterday, noting that Mr. Miyazawa was already an experienced bureaucrat when Mr. Clinton was born in 1946.

Looming over the meeting is Japan's $49 billion trade surplus with the U.S. -- a major part of Japan's record $111.34 billion international trade surplus.

To help cut the Japanese surplus, the Clinton administration wants to remove barriers to the sale of U.S. goods to Japan and recently pressed for a greater flow of U.S. auto parts to Japanese car manufacturers.

Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and Trade Representative Mickey Kantor recently wrote to Japanese Trade minister Yoshiro Mori, demanding that Japan live up to a commitment made to the Bush administration to increase auto-part sales to Japan to $19 billion annually by next year. The Japanese replied that the figure was only "a goal."

But Bloomberg Business News reported yesterday that GM has agreed tentatively to build a right-hand-drive car here for sale as a Toyota in Japan.

Japanese officials have ruled out reaching any new sectoral agreements like the one that successfully opened 20 percent of their semi-conductor market to foreign products.

The Clinton administration views the semi-conductor agreement as a possible model for prying open other sectors of the Japanese market.

Said one senior White House official: "We want trade agreements that, when there is real evidence of structural access barriers, effectively address them. We will want negotiations that will lead to some access. We will be working hard on enforcing agreements we have, and forging new agreements."

Mr. Miyazawa arrived yesterday, just three days after announcing a $117 billion economic stimulus package, which the U.S. and other industrial nations had been pressing for on the assumption that a revitalized Japanese economy would create a bigger demand for foreign imports, which would help their own struggling economies.

U.S. officials have welcomed the move, but expressed reservations over how much of the total stimulus is new spending.

They have termed it "a first step" and "a step forward," leaving little room to doubt they would like more to be done to reverse Japan's enduring trade surplus.

"It is probably a lot less in net new spending than it makes out, which has been their practice all along," said Mr. Anderson, whose institute is registered here as an agent of a foreign government.

The Japanese have signaled their own hard-line, with their ambassador to Washington Takakazu Kuriyama this week telling reporters there would be no new initiatives from Mr. Miyazawa to lessen trade tensions.

"I don't think our prime minister will be coming to Washington with any specific gift in his pocket," said Mr. Kuriyama.

Mr. Anderson, who met with Japanese foreign ministry officials during a recent trip to Tokyo, said: "They say they will fight any unilateral U.S. [trade sanction] actions. I think we can expect a much harder line on some trade issues than we have seen in the past."

Mr. Miyazawa will also face U.S. pressure to increase Japanese aid to Russia. Japan's contribution to the $43 billion Russian aid package agreed by the world's seven richest industrial nations in Tokyo this week was $1.8 billion, a figure which drew criticism from the other members of the so-called Group of Seven.

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