Calming Pacific waves

HAVING begun badly, President Bill Clinton's new administration shows signs of trying to patch up its relations with Japan before they get any worse. Just last week, to Tokyo's indignation and distress, senior United States officials were letting it be known that Mr Clinton was not interested in an early summit with the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Kiichi Miyazawa. This week, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Mr Yohei Kono, said Mr Clinton had written to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting with him at an early date to find ways to settle their trade problems through co-operation.

Punitive duties on Japanese steel and continued threats of a tariff increase on imports of Japanese mini-vans have prompted a new mood of defiance in Tokyo, and prompted calls for Japan to retaliate. However, the major American car makers' plan to file acomplaint against their Japanese competitors for unfair pricing has now been shelved, apparently at the behest of Washington. The ostensible reason for the car industry's sudden outburst of patience and understanding is to give Mr Clinton's trade policy time to settle.

That has to be a more sensible approach than the previous Japan-bashing. With Europe also smarting over American duties on its competitive steel products, Mr Clinton was in danger of alienating the whole industrialised world simultaneously.

However, the very accusations of protectionism that have persuaded the President to ask the car industry to back off for a while will encourage other industries to launch their own calls for trade sanctions against Japan. If Mr Clinton is seen as a softtouch for American industrialists' special pleading, not only Japan and China, but the whole international trading community, will suffer.

Rather than interpret the mixed signals from the other side of the Pacific, Japanese Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Michio Watanabe, headed to Washington yesterday hoping to get a clearer picture of what Mr Clinton's inexperienced administration thinks it is doing.

Japan has reason to be worried. Mr Clinton's learning curve on foreign affairs has turned out to be less steep than his pre-inauguration propaganda would have had the world expect. His advisers on East Asia, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Mr Winston Lord, a former ambassador to Beijing, are Asia hands with a strong China bias and little experience in dealing with Japan. Unless Mr Clinton's policy towards Japan is dictated by the same sense of being ill-served by the experts that led Britain to reject Foreign Office China hands in favour of a politician, Mr Chris Patten, as Governor of Hongkong, these appointments are a sign that relations with Tokyo have been placed on the back-burner.

Mr Watanabe will not want to talk only about trade. As well as the President, he is to meet his opposite number, Secretary of State Mr Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Mr Anthony Lake and Secretary of Defence Mr Les Aspin. Japan is said to be unhappy with the direction US relations with China are taking under the Clinton administration, and its tendency to mix human rights concerns with economic considerations. The pace of reduction of the US military presence is also a key concern to the Japanese, still deeply divided over their own role in the security of the region. Moreover, despite Japan's reluctance to allow its troops to serve abroad, the incoming US administration is keener than its predecessor on giving Japan a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, giving Tokyo the political clout to match its economic power.

However, economic issues will dominate US-Japan relations for the foreseeable future. With a trade surplus with the United States of some US$44 billion (HK$343 billion) last year, Japan finds itself under intense pressure from Washington to open its markets further, or find itself increasingly excluded from a new North American trade bloc.

Mr Watanabe has reportedly ignored American advice to come armed with some peace offering on trade, and is striking a defiant we-are-not-afraid-of-Bill-Clinton pose. However, the US is confident Japan's threats of trade retaliation are largely bluster, and the more pressure Washington applies, the more Tokyo will eventually have to concede.