Clinton tells Japan to cut surplus, cites corruption

June 22, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton pressed his administration's tough line against Japan yesterday even in the face of that country's deepest political crisis in four decades, asserting that whoever becomes Japan's next prime minister will be forced to open up the country to American goods.

"They can't withdraw from the world or shut us out now," Mr. Clinton said in a radio interview in which he blamed the Japanese government's collapse Friday on a legacy of "political corruption."

The blunt remarks, two weeks before he is due in Japan for a summit of the leaders of seven industrialized democracies, seemed likely to aggravate the strained relations between the two countries.

His words were in contrast to the low-key response earlier in the day by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

In an interview on the Larry King radio program, Mr. Clinton said, "It's pretty clear to me that no matter who winds up being prime minister of Japan and what faction they come out of . . . they're going to have to continue to open their economy to our products and they're going to have to continue to stimulate their economy because they don't have a budget deficit, they've got a surplus."

"What's happening in Japan now, I think, has more than anything else to do with the legacy of the various political scandals and the political corruption," the president went on.

"I think their economic policy is going to have to take the direction that we support almost no matter who gets elected prime minister. They can't withdraw from the world or shut us out now.

"They've got too much at stake in expanding into China and other countries and doing business in a very complicated world that simply won't allow Japan to be the only rich country in the world with a $110 billion a year trade surplus."

Earlier in the day, Mr. Christopher seemed at pains to stress that Japan's domestic political turmoil was an internal matter and that its government still was capable of leadership at the summit.

U.S. should ease up

Some nongovernment experts said that the U.S. would be wise to ease up on anything that gave the appearance of taking sides or depicted trade as the only issue in U.S.-Japanese relations.

"It would be unwise for the U.S. to take sides in this political earthquake," said John Yochelson, vice president for international business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It would be a real mistake for the U.S. to come in with a high profile."

This would not be the first time that President Clinton roiled Japanese sensibilities. At his Vancouver, B.C., summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, he was overheard commenting that the Japanese often say "yes" when they mean "no."

Nathaniel Thayer, director of Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the president's statement yesterday would not cause a serious rift with Japan.

Yet, he predicted the latest comments would reinforce the impression among many there that he doesn't understand the Japanese. "We're going to pay a price" for the administration's harsh statements about Japan, he said.

Clinton's goals at risk

The president's comments came as the repercussions from the disintegration of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's government threatened to undermine Mr. Clinton's goals for his encounter with the Japanese in Tokyo next month.

These include lowering world trade barriers and boosting international aid to the former Soviet republics.

Friday's fall of the Liberal Democratic Party that has led Japan for the past 40 years has triggered a wave of questions and speculation about the impact on U.S.-Japanese relations, already strained over trade.

But a variety of Japan analysts said that because of the current political vacuum in Japan, tough policy decisions demanding a strong voice from political leaders won't be made at next month's meetings in Tokyo.

"In the short run, it's likely to induce more hesitancy, indecisiveness and inability to act," said Kent E. Calder, director of the U.S.-Japan program at Princeton University.

Threatens Uruguay Round

This could bode ill for breaking logjams in the Uruguay Round of world trade talks. One element holding up progress is Japan's protectionist stance against rice imports, which are opposed by a politically strong agricultural lobby.

It also means that Japan is unlikely to boost significantly its levels of aid to the former Soviet republics, another Clinton priority.

Mr. Thayer, the Hopkins analyst, predicted that Japan might offer promises of aid or a repackaging of a previous commitment, but nothing more.

The one bright spot, analysts say, may be progress on a framework for boosting Japanese imports of American goods, a deal Mr. Clinton hopes will be reached in advance of the July 6 summit.

While no agreement is likely on specific measurements of increased American imports, Japan's powerful bureaucracy may be willing to agree with the United States on the outlines of a future pact, several experts said, since this won't require a specific commitment.

The Clinton administration is likely to describe as a success an agreement without specific numerical targets.

West's leaders are weak

The fall of Japan's conservative ruling party is just the latest indication of the overall political weakness of the world leaders who will be gathering next month in Tokyo.

President Clinton's popularity ratings are the lowest at this stage in a presidency in the history of polling; British Prime Minister John Major could be in even worse political shape; Canada's new prime minister, Kim Campbell, has yet to face a national electorate, and France's President Francois Mitterrand, presides over a government controlled by his political opponents.

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