Old Trade Dispute Reawakens

Here we go again. After two years of quiet on the trade front, the United States and Japan are poised for new skirmishes over ports, autos and aviation. The ritual of U.S.-Japan trade talks has taken on Kabuki-like theatrics--posturing, threats and finales featuring "historic" agreements that in fact yield only glacial changes in the American quest to open Japanese markets and regulations.

The Clinton administration appears to be following the same old script as it attempts to resolve the new trade disputes. After negotiations with Tokyo to relax Japanese restrictions on U.S. ships broke down last week, the administration slapped a fine of $100,000 on every Japanese ship entering a U.S. port. The U.S. sanctions, the first against Japan in a decade, were imposed immediately but will not be collected until next month and could be waived as part of a new agreement that would give U.S. vessels greater access to Japanese harbors.

Will the routine be the same as the two nations face this month's deadline for a new civil aviation agreement to replace the dated 1952 pact? Probably. Washington wants Japan to lift some restrictions on passenger and cargo flights. Japan wants to hew to the old agreement. Sound familiar?

The two nations also are scheduled to consult on the progress of the 1995 U.S.-Japan auto agreement next month. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky has complained that Japan is not abiding by the pact, noting that the 100 dealerships in Japan that sell U.S. cars are less than half of what was agreed on.

The flare-ups come as the U.S. trade deficit with Japan is surging again and Tokyo is grappling with a decelerating, heavily regulated economy. In order to address other sensitive, bilateral political and security issues, the Clinton administration had backed off from the tough trade stance it took to get the auto agreement. Now it appears the pendulum is swinging back toward confrontation. Washington has long described its Japan policy as a three-pronged approach calling for balance among political, security and economic interests. It is still groping to find that balance.

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