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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Plays Down Japan Friction


WASHINGTON -- Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama headed for home Thursday after an upbeat summit with President Bill Clinton that painted a rosy picture of bilateral ties and put mutual security and economic interests ahead of trade friction.

In a pronounced shift from his approach at earlier White House summit meetings with Japanese leaders, Clinton on Wednesday sought to play down the importance of Japan's continuing, $60-billion-a-year trade surplus with the United States.

Emerging from a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Clinton admitted that the United States has not reduced its trade deficit with Japan, but took credit for eight trade agreements that his administration has reached with that country last year.

"I don't think you can over-read the figures from this year, because of the impact of the recession (in Japan) and because of the time delay in implementing the eight agreements we made in '94 and their impact," the president declared.

It marked a considerable change for Clinton, who took office pledging to focus on results and the bottom line in dealing with Japan on trade issues. Clinton administration officials had repeatedly criticized their predecessors in the Bush administration for concentrating too much on the number of agreements signed with Japan rather than their impact on the deficit, which is much larger than America's imbalance with any other country.

Last February, after a icy White House summit session with then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosakawa, Clinton told a Japanese reporter at a press conference: "America's trade deficit with Japan is not very popular among the American people or the American government. It's hard to explain it, year in and year out." Since that time, the deficit has continued at the same levels.

The turnabout reflected in part the mood of this week's summit, which was scheduled now in an effort to show public cooperation between the United States and Japan at the beginning of an especially sensitive year. The 50th anniversaries of both the bombing of Hiroshima and the end of World War II will take place this summer -- observances some fear could spark negative emotions on both sides.

Some analysts also have said the alliance faces a more fundamental weakening due to domestic political woes in both countries and growing attention to Asian nations outside Japan.

After last year's summit ended with an admission of relations in "serious disrepair," Both Clinton and Murayama appeared at pains this year to smooth over differences.

"We know America has no more important bilateral ties than those with Japan," Clinton said at a joint news conference. "In a dramatically changing world, we look to Japan as an unwavering friend, one devoted, as we are, to promoting peace and advancing understanding."

Murayama, who took the opportunity to thank America for its "magnanimous assistance" after the war, said the two nations held a common view of the importance of U.S.-Japan security ties and of cooperation for peace and prosperity Asia.

In domestic terms, the change toward a more positive tone on trade also demonstrated that, midway through Clinton's four-year term, administration officials are now no longer so eager to draw attention to the $60-billion-a-year trade deficit -- because they are worried they will not be able to bring the down the deficit much by the 1996 presidential election year.

Japanese officials were clearly delighted by the shift. "Rather unfortunately, for the past two years we concentrated too much attention on resolving the trade issues," Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Terusuke Terada told a press conference.

Asked when the existing trade deals might have some significant impact on the trade imbalance, the Japanese spokesman replied: "Not overnight, (but) over the mid-term period," which he defined as about four to six years.

Over the past year, the United States and Japan have reached new trade agreements covering construction, medical equipment, insurance, telecommunications, cellular phones, flat glass and intellectual property. And on Tuesday, on the eve of the summit, the two governments signed a new agreement on financial services, which will give U.S. investment firms the right to manage Japanese pension funds.