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Japan moves gingerly on US trade dispute

Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe visits Washington this week at the start of what looks like a difficult year in Japanese-United States relations. Mr. Abe's first purpose, he told American journalists at a luncheon last week , is to assure the Reagan administration that the second Nakasone Cabinet ''will carry out all the promises'' made by the first Nakasone Cabinet last year. The lanky foreign minister hosted the lunch, which began with caviar and ended with souffle and honeydew melon.

The principal promises are to increase defense spending and to reduce frictions arising from Japan's huge trade surplus with the US.

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Vice-President George Bush, who will be Mr. Abe's principal interlocutor (along with Secretary of State George Shultz), has just complained that the US has a $25 billion trade deficit with Japan. Japanese figures are more modest. Even so, they admit that last year Japanese exports to the US exceeded imports by more than $18 billion.

Mr. Abe is well aware that this is an American election year. He said he was eager to solve pending trade issues, such as the long controversy over beef and oranges, by March or April. He would like to set up an early-warning system to alert both countries to looming trade disputes before they become serious.

On defense, he noted that faced with huge deficits, the government is compiling one of the most stringent budgets in recent history. But Mr. Abe promised that he, along with other party leaders, would do his utmost to see that a defense plan featuring increased procurement of frontline equipment will be maintained. The defense budget will be completed by the time he leaves for Washington Thursday, and he thought there would be enough meat in it to satisfy Reagan administration officials and the US Congress of the seriousness of Japan's defense commitments.

But ''I don't think we will ever be able to satisfy Mr. Weinberger'' (Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, whom Mr. Abe will also be meeting in Washington), the foreign minister added with a laugh.

(The Finance Ministry, which compiles Japan's annual budget, has proposed the defense budget for 1984 be set at about $12.5 billion, or 5.1 percent more than the 1983 figure. The Foreign Ministry and the so-called defense lobby in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is pressing for an increase of at least 6.5 percent over 1983. A final decision is expected tomorrow.)

On other issues, Mr. Abe said an agreement renewing a three-year pact opening the Japanese telephone system to procurement from abroad was nearly ready. There would be further talks in February on the yen-dollar exchange rate controversy (US officials say the yen is too low vis-a-vis the dollar, thus helping to boost Japanese exports).

Beef and citrus fruit talks have apparently made progress since Mr. Abe's remarks last week. US officials seem prepared to trim their demands for a 45 percent increase in the beef quota and a 25 percent increase in the citrus quota.

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The current quotas, which will expire at the end of March if there is no new agreement, allow 30,800 metric tons of beef and 82,000 metric tons of citrus fruit annually into Japan. This is 60 percent of all American beef exports and 40 percent of all citrus fruits exports, the foreign minister noted.

Mr. Abe will be calling on President Reagan in the White House when he goes to Washington. Besides Messrs. Bush, Shultz, and Weinberger, he will also be seeing Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, and special trade representative Bill Brock, as well as leading senators and congressmen.

He is obviously interested in far more than beef and oranges, or percentages of increase in Japan's defense budget. He intends to discuss relations with the Soviet Union and China, and the recent proposal by North Korea for talks with the US and South Korea.

Mr. Abe is keenly interested in prospects for peace in the Middle East. He has himself tried to mediate the Iran-Iraq war and will continue these efforts.

On North-South issues, he notes that Japan has become a major contributor of economic aid, not only to Asian countries, but to lands of strategic importance to the West, for instance Jamaica. (In 1983 Japan supplied $70 million in development aid to Jamaica.)

But Mr. Abe recognizes that on all these issues, 1984 will be a more difficult year for the Nakasone Cabinet to make its weight felt than 1983. The election setback Dec. 18 ''means that the structure - the basic elements - supporting the ruling party has been weakened,'' Mr. Abe said, noting that the post-election Cabinet depends on a coalition with the small New Liberal Club to maintain a stable majority.

''But both Prime Minister (Yasuhiro) Nakasone and I intend to consistently keep the promises we have made internationally,'' he said.

Himself a potential prime minister who contested the presidency of the ruling party with Mr. Nakasone in November 1982, Mr. Abe has been overshadowed as foreign minister by the more forceful and colorful Nakasone.

But Mr. Abe, son-in-law of one former prime minister and political heir apparent of another, has his own qualifications: determination, consistency, unfailing good humor, and poise. Having just entered his 60th year, he has finally crossed that magic threshold when politicians begin to be taken seriously in age-respecting Japan.

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