Japanese view Ambassador Mondale as sign U.S. will toughen its relations

June 11, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- The choice of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale as U.S. ambassador here suggests that economic struggles with the Clinton administration may prove tougher than anyone expected, some Japanese officials say.

Publicly, officials were enthusiastic but had to be tentative in their comments yesterday because no formal announcement had been made.

News that President Bill Clinton would choose Mr. Mondale had reached them only as a privileged diplomatic discussion about Mr. Mondale's acceptability to Japan.

Announcement today

President Clinton is scheduled to announce his choice for ambassador to Japan at 10:10 A.M. today in the White House Rose Garden.

For the most part, the Japanese were delighted. "If the report is true, it's wonderful," said Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

But working-level Japanese officials, who have tended to take a patronizing attitude to Mr. Clinton's initial demands for a slash in the $50 billion trade surplus with the United states, have begun to re-evaluate that view in light of recent events. One of those events has been the word that Mr. Mondale might be the next ambassador.

As to Mr. Mondale himself, officials have only praise, even in comments made on background. Japan has always liked to have U.S. ambassadors who bring high standing to the job and have prime access to the president and secretary of state.

Officials stress that Mr. Mondale meets that specification. But in more informal settings, diplomats and trade negotiators said Mr. Clinton's reported choice suggests hard fights ahead.

Viewed as a plus

"Mr. Mondale will strengthen President Clinton's position in ways that suggest he may really be preparing to go head-to-head," one mid-level diplomat said.

"On the one hand, Mr. Mondale has the kind of access Japan likes to have, so we will never have to wonder whether a policy is coming from the White House or from somewhere else," he said. "And he is low-key and courtly and unlikely to give the Japanese press much grounds for public complaint.

"On the other hand, he doesn't come to it with any strong philosophy of his own the way former Ambassador Mike Mansfield did, so the Clinton team won't find its own embassy putting on pressure to moderate its hard line," he added. "I think that's the main point -- it's a choice that gives Washington a free hand to be as tough as it chooses."

Mr. Mansfield -- the former Senate majority leader who was ambassador here for 12 years -- was highly popular with Japanese officials and reporters, who often saw him as a friend who would make Tokyo's case to Washington as readily as Washington's case to them.

'Mr. Foreign Pressure'

His successor, Michael H. Armacost, has been labeled "Mr. Gaiatsu" -- Mr. Foreign Pressure -- by some Japanese media, for his outspoken advocacy of U.S. interests and for his tactic of directly seeking out senior Tokyo politicians as well as diplomats. For those same reasons, he has been very popular with U.S. business figures here.

Prominent Japanese outside the government tended to reflect the government's approach of stressing Mr. Mondale's high political standing.

"Mondale will be like Mansfield in that he will widen the pipeline FTC between the U.S. and Japan," said Akio Morita, chairman of Sony Corporation and a prominent figure in Japan-U.S. relations.

"The Japanese government still does not have a complete picture of the Clinton administration's Japan policy," said Takeshi Igarashi, a professor at Tokyo University. "Mondale as ambassador is the best available at this moment, and the choice could ease some of the tensions."

Reports that Mr. Clinton has chosen Mr. Mondale come at a time when Japan is mounting its biggest-ever public relations blitz in a drive to blunt Clinton administration demands for "measurable" progress in reducing the deficit.

(Ambassador Armacost, in an interview with the New York Times yesterday, described Japan's efforts to depict itself as a free trader as "propaganda.")

U.S. officials outlined this week a set of demands they will present today in Washington at a meeting with Japanese counterparts. The meeting is the first attempt to work out a new "framework" for economic talks. The framework is to be announced by Mr. Clinton and Prime Minister Miyazawa at next month's G-7 summit in Tokyo.

The U.S. plan calls for many numerical goals and "yardsticks" to measure progress in opening Japanese markets to U.S. goods. Japanese officials immediately rejected the measuring devices as a form of "managed trade" that would undermine free international commerce.

30% increase in imports

As overall goals, the U.S. plan calls for reduction of Japan's trade surplus to between 1 percent and 2 percent of its gross national product, mainly by a 30-percent increase in imported manufactured goods.

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