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Staff writer

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and U.S. President Bill Clinton will embrace enhanced bilateral cooperation based on amity and mutual trust when they meet next week in Washington.

Signs of discord, however, may disrupt the harmony; Bills for the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, after many turns and twists, have barely cleared the Lower House, while bilateral economic and trade issues remain the seeds of future disputes.

Obuchi is leaving for the United States this evening on a weeklong tour highlighted by a bilateral summit with Clinton on May 3 in Washington. This is the first official U.S. visit by a Japanese prime minister in 12 years, although informal top-level meetings have been held almost annually.

The agenda of the summit includes discussions on Japan-U.S. security ties, economic relations and international issues such as the Korean Peninsula, Kosovo and China.

“Prime Minister Obuchi’s U.S. visit this time will be characterized by the two countries’ resolve to design a blueprint for their medium- and long-term cooperation to deal with a variety of problems the world faces today,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

During their talks, Obuchi and Clinton will reaffirm that Japan and the U.S. will pursue common goals as important allies bound by shared values such as respect for free-market principles, democracy and basic human rights, the official said.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley, speaking with reporters last week at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, echoed the view.

“Fundamentally, the theme of this meeting will be shared values and common interest, which have made the U.S.-
Japan relationship so strong in the last half a century,” Foley said. “Japan and the U.S. have many areas of cooperation. Our economies are closely joined, our security relationship is fundamental to peace and stability in the entire Asia-Pacific region.”

Japan and the U.S. agree that unlike the previous bilateral summit, which was held in Tokyo in November amid Japan’s worsening economic indicators, the upcoming summit has few urgent bilateral issues that need to be resolved by top-level initiatives.

Top on the political agenda will be further cooperation on the North Korean issue. Tokyo and Washington, together with Seoul, have agreed to closely cooperate in discouraging Pyongyang from pursuing its missile and nuclear development programs through “dialogue and deterrence.”

Pyongyang’s test-launch of a missile over Japan in August, as well as the trespass into Japanese territorial waters by two suspected North Korean spy boats in March, highlighted the need for enhanced security cooperation among the three countries.

In the meeting with Clinton, Obuchi is expected to pledge more financial support for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization and request further U.S. cooperation to deter North Korea from launching another missile, the ministry official said.

To maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region based on firm Japan-U.S. security ties, Obuchi will express his resolve to urge the Diet to quickly approve the bills covering the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, the official said.

But passage of the revised guidelines bills Tuesday by the Lower House has drawn fire from some opposition forces, which argue the legislation is a product of last-minute political patchwork in the runup to Obuchi’s U.S. visit.

In wrapping up their negotiations, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, its coalition ally, the Liberal Party, and New Komeito, the second-largest opposition force, agreed to draw up separate legislation for inspections of unidentified ships later in the current Diet session. This has effectively postponed debate on the contentious issue.

The tripartite behind-the-scenes deal, as expressed by Naoto Kan, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, left the public with a sense of ambiguity.

The government denies speculation that the Lower House passage of the bills is to be Obuchi’s “souvenir” for Clinton, stressing that the U.S. did not urge Japan to pass the bills prior to the upcoming talks.

Throughout the political debate, Foley resorted to Washington’s official stance, saying, “We are obviously watching with great interest the discussions in the Diet about the guidelines, but this is a matter for the Japanese Diet and the government.”

On the timing of the bills’ passage, Foley stressed it is not essential that they are passed by the time of Obuchi’s visit or any other time. What is essential is the guidelines’ effectiveness, he added.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, some thorny issues have been emerging.

Although discussions on economic and trade issues will not dominate the Obuchi-Clinton talks, it remains doubtful that recent trade disputes between Tokyo and Washington can be resolved at the working level, a Foreign Ministry official said.

“The U.S. has been paying particular attention to the current condition and the future prospect of the Japanese economy,” the official said. “The U.S. side may review the result of our deregulation efforts and make further demands on some individual trade items.”

Regarding the highly controversial steel trade, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a bill last month that will limit steel imports, including those from Japan, although the bill is considered a violation of World Trade Organization rules.

In its 1999 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers released April 1, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative listed 54 sectors in nine industries regarding Japan, including automobiles, auto parts, flat glass, steel, rice, government procurement and insurance.

On the same day, Clinton signed an executive order reinstating the powerful “Super 301” provision to impose retaliatory sanctions on countries believed to maintain serious trade barriers against U.S. goods and services.

The Japanese government brushed aside the allegation made in the U.S. trade report and criticized Washington for “going against international trade rules by threatening other countries with unilateral sanctions.”

The U.S., however, remains unpersuaded; the latest trade figures show that the U.S. deficit with the rest of the world climbed to a record $19.4 billion in February, with the figure for Japan standing at $5.2 billion, up 13.1 percent from the previous month.

A bleak prospect for the Japanese economy may be further fueling concerns in Washington. The International Monetary Fund recently predicted Japan’s economy will contract by 1.4 percent in 1999, in contrast to the government’s earlier projection of 0.5 percent growth for fiscal 1999.

In an attempt to prevent these concerns from turning into a major dispute, Obuchi will tell Clinton about Japan’s efforts to achieve fast economic recovery and push forward further deregulation, the Japanese official said.

It is unlikely, however, that Japan will announce an additional economic stimulus package based on a supplementary budget to speed up the recovery process, the official added.

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