The mounting U.S. trade deficit with Japan has sparked increasing criticism in Congress and the media of former U.S. government officials who have allegedly ''switched sides" by providing advisory services to Japanese corporations.

Apparently, U.S.-Japanese relations have deteriorated so that assisting Japanese companies in understanding and responding to U.S. political concerns is equated with aiding and comforting an economic enemy.The growth of this mind-set reflects both a misperception of the Washington-based interests of Japanese clients and an even more fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S.-Japan economic relationship.

Existing laws and ethical obligations require former U.S. government officials to protect the confidentiality of information gained during government service, and limit their ability to represent clients before their former agencies.

In light of the heavily-publicized allegations of influence-peddling leveled against Michael Deaver and others, efforts by Howard Wolpe, D-Mich., and fellow congressmen to strengthen these laws are certainly understandable.

But, in addition to condemning individual acts of unethical behavior, certain critics protest any provision of legislative or regulatory advice to Japanese corporations as an affront to U.S. national interests.

Indeed, an ugly mood reminiscent of the bygone "yellow peril" era is beginning to surface in U.S. politics, fueled by references to "the Japanese" as a monolithic entity working in unison to unduly influence congressional and administration decision-making.

Such charges reflect the popular sentiment that America and Japan are locked in economic war fare, with the demise of U.S. industrial power and prosperity one possibly outcome.

If such war-time conditions actually prevailed, not just former government officials, but all Americans, from Pennsylvania Avenue attorneys on retainer to Japan Inc., to Ohio technicians working for Honda Motors, would be obligated to find new employment.

Both the Pennsylvania Avenue attorneys and the Honda employees correctly recognize, however, that the actual economic combat exists not between America and Japan, but among individual foreign and domestic corporations, all vying for a piece of the U.S. market, and all with a vital stake in continued U.S. prosperity.

In fact, Japanese corporations maintain intense intra-industry rivalries, and seek the assistance of Washington advisers with an eye toward improving their U.S. competitive position against other Japanese, as well as U.S.-based corporations.

Despite the efforts of industry and labor barons to identify the U.S. national interest with their own parochial economic interests, the U.S. public at large continues to appreciate the benefits of international competition in the U.S. market.

No one is forcing Americans to buy Japanese imports, and our demonstrable preference for cer tain high quality Japanese products is hardly unpatriotic. The growth of international economic ties has fueled both U.S. and worldwide economic prosperity, and the greatest economic calamity facing the United States is not Japanese economic domination, but rather the collapse of world economic markets that could be triggered by protectionism unleashed.

Clearly, the national economic interests of the United States and Japan will sometimesdiverge, and the administration should intently pursue diplomatic efforts to reduce Japanese barriers to U.S. exports and eliminate any truly "unfair" Japanese trading practices. Moreover, in certain military-sensitive economic sectors, import restraints may be warranted to protect U.S. national security interests.

In other cases, efforts by struggling U.S. corporations to wrap themselves in the American flag should be viewed skeptically. Reduction in the bilateral trade deficit, although an important objective, is best achieved through internationally-coordinated economic reforms, and will, in any case, inevitably result from continued dollar depreciation.

In the interim, U.S. consumers should continue to exchange freely their

dollars for the products of their choice, foreign or domestic, and Washington attorneys should continue rendering advisory services to individual corporations, foreign or domestic, seeking to gain a competitive edge in the U.S. marketplace.

To the extent such advice enables Japanese companies to understand and appropriately respond to U.S. political concerns, the looming U.S.-Japan impasse over trade concerns may be averted.

Certainly, withholding legislative or political advice on the mistaken impression that U.S.-Japanese economic warfare proscribes such contact would only increase current tensions and deny U.S. consumers the benefits of Japanese corporate efforts to remain competitive in the U.S. market.

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