Tokyo jostles to get US attention

TOKYO - If there is one thing that Japan finds harder to take from the United States than criticism, it is silence, writes Terry McCarthy.

The two countries have been bound together since the Second World War, and have grown accustomed to constant bickering - usually over economic issues. But the US is preoccupied with its own economy, and Japan feels starved of attention.

Last weekend, Michio Watanabe, the Foreign Minister, visited Washington. He said he had no new ideas to put to the President - he just wanted to listen to what Bill Clinton had to say. And that was not much - apart from a pointed reference to Japan's swelling trade surplus.

Since Mr Clinton's election, fears in Japan that the US would turn protectionist have mounted. But Mr Clinton's administration has yet to make any concrete policy announcements about Japan, and Tokyo does not know what to do - it hovers between tough- sounding statements on free trade, and conciliatory remarks on the alliance's importance.

Even Mr Watanabe appears confused. In Washington he made an apparently rash promise that Japan would take further steps to stimulate its economy - a commitment retracted by a government spokesman in Tokyo. By the time he had returned home, Mr Watanabe was threatening the US with retaliation if it imposed trade sanctions.

A plan to open a lobbying office for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Washington was dismissed as too provocative to a president who has vowed to crack down on foreign governments' lobbyists. Instead, diplomats and officials have been desperately trying to open more discrete channels of communication with the new administration. Japanese strive to establish networks of human relationships before acting or taking decisions. Now they do not know who to talk to.

The main reason for the frustration is that President Clinton has not given much thought to Japan. His foreign policy Asian section is run almost entirely by China hands. What's more, Mr Clinton's new diplomacy with China sounds tough and unforgiving in areas such as human rights. Tokyo prefers a more conciliatory line.

Some fear it is just the quiet before the storm. Japan's trade surplus with the US rose to dollars 50bn ( pounds 36bn) last year, and Mr Clinton will not be able to stay quiet on that for long. But the two account for 40 per cent of the world's economy - sooner or later they will have to sit down and talk.