The anger may no longer be quite as palpable as when Japanese protectionists scuttled an agreement on trade liberalisation at last month's APEC summit. But US concern over Asian trade practices has far from abated. In Washington this week, David Aaron, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade, bracketed China alongside Japan when he warned that soaring bilateral trade deficits could cause serious friction next year. Sino-US trade talks this week are not expected to produce any progress. Far from easing tariff barriers, Beijing's concerns about the Asian financial crisis make it more inclined to re-impose import restrictions. That may bring further tension during the coming year, especially if the bilateral deficit for 1999 reaches US$70 billion, as Mr Aaron has predicted. But as long as President Bill Clinton remains in office serious discord with Beijing is unlikely. Having invested so much work in rebuilding relations, he wants to preserve the fruits of his efforts. The same considerations do not apply to Japan, the target of so much US anger over the past year. For all Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's promises of reform, and yesterday's opinion poll showing a slight increase in his popularity, protectionism remains as widespread as before. Far from moving in the right direction, Tokyo now plans to levy tariffs of more than 1,000 per cent on imported rice. Such actions threaten to provoke a backlash in the US Congress which might even undermine support for a continued American military presence in Japan. US relations with its old partner remain bedevilled by trade problems. And Mr Aaron's comments indicate these are likely to get worse before they get better.