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Summit Reveals Myriad Ties That Bind US, Japan

AMID the gloss and glare of summitry, it was possible to overlook the complexity of the relationship between the US and Japan.

As President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto shook hands yesterday and declared their security alliance fit for the 21st century, the ties between the two nations did seem to represent, in Mr. Clinton's words, a "remarkable partnership."

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This week the two governments agreed to bring their militaries into closer contact. Nobody said much about the trade conflicts that have dominated relations in recent years. And the two sides toasted their combined efforts to face global problems such as overpopulation and environmental degradation.

The leaders even celebrated a common pastime. Mr. Hashimoto gave Clinton a baseball glove from Hideo Nomo, and the president gave Emperor Akihito memorabilia signed by Cal Ripken Jr.

But it doesn't take a historian to remember that the modern relationship between the two countries was born in the death marches and atomic bombings of World War II. To this day, the two nations look at each other with an ambivalence that mixes admiration and suspicion.

Some in the United States continue to question the motives of those who administer Japan's export-oriented economy. American critics warn that Japan will not be a reliable partner in a world crisis. Some Japanese similarly worry that the US seeks to dominate their country and wonder why Japan's leaders can't be more independent of their Washington counterparts.

So while Clinton says that "the relationship between the US and Japan is better and stronger than ever," it is also true that the problems have not disappeared.

This week's summit has been devoted to bolstering the longstanding security alliance between the two countries, but these efforts seem certain to be accompanied by new complexities:

Washington and Tokyo now must wait to see how China and other Asian nations react to the prospect of Japan becoming more engaged militarily with the US and perhaps more assertive in the region.

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Japanese officials are now anticipating a "more equal partnership" with the US. But Japanese officials also recognize that if they want to develop their political and military might, they must do so in concert with the US.

Although economic tensions have abated, a former Clinton administration official warns that Japanese and US companies will find themselves increasingly in competition elsewhere in Asia.

As China's economy has grown in recent years, expanding its capacity to modernize its large military, Japan has become increasingly intent on maintaining solid relations with Beijing. "Japanese policy is to do everything in your power to get along with China," says Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute in Cardiff, Calif.

The closer links now being celebrated between Japan and the US may not play well in Beijing, Mr. Johnson warns. US relations with China are often frosty, and China is highly critical of moves by Japan to exert anything other than economic power.

This week Japan agreed to share parts and supplies with the American military during peacetime activities, an arrangement the US has sought here since 1988. More significantly, officials agreed to study ways in which Japan could assist American forces in the event of a crisis in the region.

THESE moves may prove controversial here, since Japan's US-drafted Constitution renounces the use of force in resolving international disputes and because many pacifist Japanese resist any expansion of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, as the military is known. Japanese commentators in recent days have called for debate on the steps taken this week, which will likely become an election issue in Japan during the year ahead.

Even so, many Japanese experts and officials have long argued that Japan needs to be more engaged as a political and even a military force in the world. In the post-cold-war era, says Akira Kato, a specialist on international politics at Tokyo's Obirin University, peace can best be assured through multilateral groups that can respond to crises. "Japan should become involved in this system of crisis control," he says, "and play more active roles, including military ones, in a steady but cautious manner."

Within the key bureaucracies that formulate security policy here - the Foreign Ministry and Japan's Defense Agency - officials recognize that the only way they can expand Japanese power is under the aegis of the US. If Tokyo wants to "be constructive" on the world stage, says a Japanese government official involved in security matters, "Japan has to emphasize the importance of the US-Japan alliance."

To gain independence from Washington and more stature in the world, he says, Japan must appear to be dependent on the US for fear that Asian countries will denounce a resurgence of Japanese militarism. "We have no alternative," the official adds.

A few days before the summit, former American Undersecretary of Commerce Jeffrey Garten predicted that it would be billed as a resounding success. "Most summits are," he added.

Although Clinton's trade policy is producing results for US companies doing business in Japan, Mr. Garten warned that the two countries would soon run into conflict in some other economies. "There is brewing a tremendous amount of competition between Japanese and American firms in Asian markets," he said.

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