Miyazawa's view of U.S. officials slips out, but is then retracted

June 02, 1993|By John Woodruff | John Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has provided a rare glimpse into top-level Japanese thinking about the Clinton administration, first asserting that new U.S. officials "don't understand" trade and then trying to have his own words suppressed.

In a television interview taped Monday night, Mr. Miyazawa had this to say about U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and other Washington negotiators: "They've just come to the government, so they probably don't understand very well."

Minutes later, he told the interviewer he wanted to retract the comment because it "might be rude." In fact, in Japan, where political discussion cherishes subtlety, that was an understatement in itself.

Consistent with most Japanese journalists' long-standing deference to officials, both the remark and the retraction were edited out of the interview when it was broadcast about midnight Monday.

But by yesterday afternoon, the story that the prime minister had spoken patronizingly of the new team in Washington was being reported by U.S. news wires. Officials at TV Asahi, a private network associated with the Asahi newspaper, confirmed the details but insisted that they not be identified.

The comment was made at a time when Tokyo and Washington are at serious loggerheads. The remark appeared to provide insight into the thinking behind Japan's drive to resist Clinton administration pressure for reductions in Japan's unprecedented $130 billion trade surplus, $49 billion of which is with the United States.

When Mr. Miyazawa met President Clinton in Washington in April, they acknowledged serious differences over trade and agreed to set up a forum to discuss them before July's G-7 summit in Tokyo.

Since then, the Clinton team has urged that the United States demand that Japan set concrete targets for cutting its trade deficit. Tokyo has denounced the idea as "managed trade."

Last month, the Clinton administration ruled that Japan has systematically cut U.S. companies out of billions of dollars in construction work, a finding that requires retaliation under U.S. law if Japan does not produce a plan to correct it by the end of this month. Japan has adamantly refused to discuss the issue while under threat of retaliation and vows to take the case to international trade tribunals if the United States retaliates.

Mr. Miyazawa, whose experience in Japanese-U.S. relations dates back 50 years to the beginning of the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan, has long been comfortable with Washington administrations that preached free trade and often subordinated trade disputes in order to keep Japan on board in the Cold War struggle against the former Soviet Union.

For several months, he and other Japanese officials have seemed convinced that the new U.S. administration will turn out to be different.

They have clearly been taken aback by a U.S. team that unabashedly says trade is now as high a priority in Washington as it has always been in Tokyo.

The prime minister's remark Monday night echoed similar patronizing comments many Japanese diplomats and trade officials have made about the Clinton administration in recent months when they have been confident they would not be quoted by name.

"We are just going to have to keep resisting the pressure until these new people learn the realities of free trade," a middle-level Japanese diplomat said last week. A senior trade official spoke three weeks earlier of having to "teach" the new team in Washington.

The Japanese policy of flat-out resistance apparently is based on an assumption that once the Clinton administration learns the ropes, it will sooner or later ease up on demands for negotiated reductions in the trade surplus.

The Japanese denounce the Clinton approach as "managed trade" and have mounted a free-trade public relations offensive to seek support from Europe and other key U.S. trade partners.

"The Japanese approach has not one fatal flaw but two," one Western diplomat based here said during the weekend. "The first is that Japan has no credibility because it is such a latecomer to the free-trade school of talk after half a century of very carefully managing its own trade, and in fact still doesn't fully practice what it has now started preaching.

"The other flaw is that, whether you call it managed trade or some other name, if Japan doesn't help bring down that trade surplus, the world is going to see it as a red flag of greed, and it's going to touch off trade wars in earnest," he said. "Only Japan is in a position to stop that."

Mr. Miyazawa, who entered politics after a career as a fast-rising Ministry of Finance bureaucrat, has long had a reputation for impatience with both Japanese and foreign politicians whom he considers inexperienced or ill-informed.

He wrested the office of prime minister from the youthful "Mr. Clean," Toshiki Kaifu, 1 1/2 years ago on a campaign promise to "bring back the big boys."

That same impatience with men he saw as his inferiors cost Mr. Miyazawa several earlier chances at the premiership.

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