Trans-Pacific Posturing

February 15, 1994

Politically, President Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa scored heavily by bluntly disagreeing on trade issues and threatening a cross-fire of retaliation. But economically, the two leaders hardly acted like the mature grown-ups they pronounced themselves to be in ratcheting up candor to the point of jingoism.

The Japanese were the first to learn. After a weekend of chest-thumping about "little brother" finally standing up to "big brother," the Tokyo stock market plunged. Americans, we predict, will not be so quick to learn because there are fewer vulnerabilities in the U.S. economy. But if Japan's recession accelerates and the hard-won progress made in reforming world commerce under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is shattered, the tough talk on Capitol Hill will sound hollow indeed.

In any summit, there is bound to be a lot of posturing. The tradition in American-Japanese meetings was to paper over continuing discord in unctuous cliches. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hosokawa turned that pattern on its head with a show of intransigence that had better be exaggerated.

Even on the way home to Tokyo, Mr. Hosokawa was back to talking about opening Japanese markets just so long as he was not under pressure of U.S. numerical targets. And Mr. Clinton today is expected to announce tariffs against Japanese cellular phones because of that country's gross failure to live up to a 1986 agreement with Motorola.

This will sound sweet to Japan-bashers in this country but actually it will be a minimum and justifiable gesture. What is not needed is a precipitous Washington rush to activate the "Super 301" law opening Japanese goods to broad penalties or adoption of a proposal by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, a compulsive protectionist, that would set numerical targets in law.

The strongest defense for the hard-nosed Clinton position lies in the need to establish American credibility. Presidents Reagan and Bush, obsessed with the need to keep Japan as a close Cold War ally, accepted phony agreements that did little to stop giant-sized U.S. deficits.

The point had to be made that we were serious, that the Japanese had to be confronted with a situation where window-dressing would not work. Now, having executed this turn-around, Mr. Clinton has to inflict some short-term pain without torpedoing the fragile Japanese economy -- all the while keeping the door open to long-range reconciliation. He has to prove, in other words, that a prudent economic nationalist (which he is) can be more a free trader than a protectionist.

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