In a significant shift from his earlier, more confrontational approach, President Clinton has begun to downplay the severe economic disputes between the United States and Japan and to emphasize instead the two countries' longstanding security ties.
Three months ago, during his first summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, the President sought to jolt Tokyo into realizing that something had to be done quickly about Japan's huge trade surplus with the United States. "Let's not paper this over," Clinton told Miyazawa at the time.
But on Tuesday, shortly after arriving in Tokyo for his second session of the year with Miyazawa, Clinton reverted to the more traditional U.S. approach to Japan. At times he sounded more like former President George Bush and other American presidents than the brash newcomer of last spring.
Why the shift? Has Clinton already abandoned his effort to bring about fundamental change in the economic and trade ties between the economic superpowers?
Probably not. There is no sign that Clinton's main goal has changed. He himself made that plain Tuesday, saying he would still like to get an agreement to work out trade disputes between the two countries, and "the sooner the better."
Rather, the softer-edged stance that the President has brought on this Tokyo trip represents a change in short-term tactics--a shift aimed at getting long-term results while taking account of the current Japanese political upheavals and his own political interests, and at reassuring Asia about America's determination to keep its troops in the region.
After nearly six months in office, Clinton and his advisers recognize that what really matter in economic ties with Japan are not quick victories but substantial results over a longer term--specifically, by the time the 1996 presidential election campaign rolls around.
But they also understand that, weakened as Miyazawa now is politically, he might feel compelled to reject any U.S. demands for major concessions during Clinton's visit. And the U.S. President, who has political troubles of his own, could be further damaged by such a rebuff during his first major turn on the international stage.
So the Administration is adopting an easy-does-it approach for the present, hoping the shift in tactics will pay dividends down the road. And if some form of agreement should emerge by week's end, so much the better.
It was the Administration's underlying conviction that Japan must be galvanized into long-term economic change that prompted U.S. officials to take such a tough approach when Miyazawa visited Washington last spring.
"We have a sense of urgency about the economic relationship," one senior Administration official told The Times recently. "It's better to deal with these things earlier in the Administration, rather than to do nothing and let them fester."
However, having laid down the gauntlet to Japan in April, Clinton is now trying to be more reassuring--in part because he and his aides don't want to play the ugly American in the midst of the most important Japanese election in decades.
The President is also eager to show that the security links between the two countries are still important, because his seeming preoccupation with the economic disputes last spring caused Japan and other Asian countries to worry about the possibility of some major change in the security ties between Washington and Tokyo.
Furthermore, since Miyazawa's visit to Washington, the task of preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has taken on increasing priority within the Clinton Administration, giving the United States further reason to re-emphasize the continuing validity of its security ties with Japan and South Korea.
Many analysts, both inside and outside the Clinton Administration, believe that if North Korea were to acquire nuclear weapons, South Korea and Japan might feel compelled to start down the road toward becoming nuclear powers too. Administration officials are determined to prevent that sort of nuclear competition in Asia.
"We feel confident, looking toward the future, that our security partnership, which has kept us free of war and which has maintained a strict, non-proliferation approach in this region, can continue, and we hope that it will," Clinton said Tuesday.
". . . It bears repeating again that the United States has no more important bilateral relationship than our relationship with Japan," Clinton said, echoing standard American language about Japan. "We are strategic allies, and our futures are bound up together."
In March, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons. The Pyongyang regime backed off that threat last month, but it has still not agreed to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
After Tuesday's meetings, Japanese officials appeared to go further than they have in the past toward acknowledging publicly that the United States is providing nuclear protection to Japan. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official quoted Clinton as telling Miyazawa, "We will continue providing nuclear deterrence power to our allies."
Finally, the President realizes there is little political benefit for him at home in trying to insist on results or concessions from Japan, because he would run the risk of coming home empty-handed.
Over the past week, Clinton and his aides have made the point that Miyazawa's lame-duck government may not have the political power or will to work out the sort of "framework agreement" for resolving trade issues that the President and the prime minister had promised to have before the start of this week's meeting in Tokyo.
The President did not want to make the achievement of an economic agreement the litmus test for this trip's success, because the inability to reach an accord could be perceived in the United States as another failure on his part.
So determined was Clinton to downplay the U.S. economic disputes with Japan that, when he and Miyazawa were asked about the frictions at a press conference, he ducked the issue even as the prime minister took time to rehash his country's longstanding opposition to numerical targets or goals for reducing Japan's trade surplus.
"We have a slight difference of view on that," Clinton said. "But . . . there's no point in bringing them up again."
Japanese officials were clearly delighted with Clinton's return to the more traditional American approach of emphasizing U.S.-Japan security ties and downplaying economic issues.
"In the past (dealings with the Clinton Administration), the security relationship (between the United States and Japan) was not properly addressed," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday night.