WASHINGTON -- President Bush and former Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita met Monday to discuss what was described as the 'extraordinary efforts' needed to defuse trade tensions between the economic superpowers.
Takeshita, still influential after being driven from office by scandal last year, flew to Washington over the weekend in a further sign of stepped-up high-level dialogue driven by rising concern over a huge trade imbalance.
The almost $50 billion Japanese trade surplus with the United States was the focal point of an unusual desert summit last week between Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu at a swank country club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Bush and Takeshita devoted much of their hour-long meeting to a similar discussion of economic problems 'and the fact that their solution will require extraordinary efforts on both sides of the Pacific.'
Takeshita assured Bush that Kaifu 'has become increasingly aware of the urgency' to resolve those problems, Fitzwater said, and the two acknowledged 'the public pressures' driving both sides 'to reinvigorate the relationship.'
Fitzwater said before the meeting that Bush wanted to 'emphasize again that the United States needs and wants access to Japanese markets, that we have strong protectionist pressures in the Congress and any help that the former prime minister can give us in relaying that message to the people and the government of Japan would be helpful.'
Even as Takeshita and Bush reviewed some of the same issues raised in the recent talks with Kaifu, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher was en route to Tokyo to reinforce the U.S. demand for more open access to Japanese markets.
Before leaving Washington, Mosbacher said he hoped to reach 'a clear understanding' on trade issues during three days of meetings with Japanese industrial leaders and government officials, including Kaifu.
The quickened pace of diplomatic activity has been prompted by a lack of tangible progress in negotiations on several product-specific trade disputes and in talks on the structural causes for the U.S.-Japanese trade gap.
With the trade talks approaching several critical deadlines, U.S. officials have warned that Japan could face additional charges of unfair trade and the threat of retaliatory sanctions from an increasingly impatient Congress.
As leader of the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Takeshita remains a powerful figure in Japanese politics and comfortably won re-election to his seat in Parliament in nationwide elections Feb. 18.
Takeshita played a key role in elevating Kaifu from obscurity to prime minister last August and could have an important role in shaping the Japanese response to mounting U.S. demands for trade concessions.
Like the meeting with Kaifu, however, U.S. officials took pains to not give the Bush-Takeshita talks even the appearance of formal negotiations and denied any intent to detract from the earlier discussions with Kaifu.
Cognizant of sharpened sensitivities and political rivalries in Japan, where Kaifu's standing remains the subject of doubt, one official said the meeting with Takeshita was arranged as a courtesy and with no concrete results in mind.