President Bush moved Monday to reinforce his warning to Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu earlier this month that Tokyo must move soon to open its markets or risk a serious political backlash here--and possible retaliation.
Bush reiterated the theme in an hourlong private talk with former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who is visiting here this week. Takeshita, Japan's most powerful politician, is regarded as the real political force behind Kaifu.
The talks, deliberately kept low-key to avoid undermining Kaifu politically, are part of a well-orchestrated plan to warn Japan bluntly that domestic pressures here stemming from the trade problem are in danger of threatening the broader U.S.-Japan relationship.
The Administration wants to enlist Takeshita's help in laying the political groundwork in Japan for opening the Japanese market. The White House is facing a series of congressionally mandated deadlines that will place it under pressure to retaliate with trade sanctions if Tokyo does not respond.
The meetings with Takeshita came as lower-level U.S. officials resumed negotiations with their Japanese counterparts on a wide range of U.S. trade frictions with Japan, including complaints involving Japanese barriers to U.S. supercomputers, satellites and forest products.
Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher arrived in Tokyo for similar discussions with Cabinet-level trade officials there. Mosbacher told reporters that his mission, too, was to reinforce what Bush told Kaifu during their summit meeting.
U.S. officials said Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who joined him in the talks, were decidedly more candid than they had been in their discussions with Kaifu. The Administration plans to repeat the message again later this month when former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe visits.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Bush and Takeshita agreed Monday that resolving U.S.-Japanese economic problems "will require extraordinary efforts on both sides of the Pacific"--an admission that Japan must make some concessions soon.
He said Takeshita had asserted that Kaifu "has become increasingly aware of the urgency." The Administration has been frustrated because Tokyo has proved unyielding in a series of trade negotiations that the two sides have been conducting for the past few months involving everything from broad economic issues to specific product categories.
The Japanese contend that their markets are sufficiently open already. They blame the continuing U.S. trade deficit on America's failure to reduce its budget deficit and the cost of capital and to increase savings and investment to make American firms more competitive. While Washington has agreed that Japan's complaints have some merit, it has been slow to act.
U.S. officials fear that the mounting trade frictions--combined with a growing impatience in each country that the other is not doing enough to solve the problem--may trigger a backlash in both countries that will weaken their broader diplomatic relationship.
Bush told Kaifu in their meetings on March 2 and 3 that Washington wants to bring Japan in as a full partner in deciding global economic and political issues, but will be hamstrung politically until the trade problems can be ironed out.
The Administration wants Japan to be more responsive to U.S. demands that it alter basic "structural impediments" in its economy--ending bid-rigging and other collusive business practices, revamping the country's pricing system and liberalizing its product-distribution system.
It also wants Japan to offer some serious concessions aimed at resolving disputes over trade in supercomputers, satellites, forest products, telecommunications equipment and ships. The supercomputer talks reportedly are showing progress, but the others are faltering.
More broadly, however, the Administration is telling the Japanese that the outsized U.S. trade deficit with Japan--which is stuck at $49 billion after declining slightly in 1987--must come down soon, no matter how Japan chooses to do so.
Bush won a political commitment from Kaifu at their March 2 and 3 summit that his government will "go an extra mile" to be more forthcoming on the trade talks now under way, but the prime minister has been running into political resistance in Tokyo.
Bush and Baker met with Takeshita for about an hour Monday, and Baker and Takeshita then met privately.