U.S. taking trade issues to Japanese businesses

January 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- After months of fruitless trade negotiations with the Japanese government, the Clinton administration is taking a new tack. It has begun to talk directly to Japanese companies, urging them to buy more foreign products and take other actions on their own to reduce Japan's huge trade surplus.

The direct appeal to the companies is partly an effort to circumvent Japan's bureaucrats, whom U.S. officials accuse of being recalcitrant and responsible for the current stalemate in negotiations under a new framework for trade talks agreed to by the two nations in July.

Some trade experts argue that even beyond the current negotiations, dealing directly with Japanese companies could become a more effective way of achieving U.S. goals than working through the Japanese government. But so far, concrete results from such an approach are difficult to pinpoint.

"We are attempting to break new ground in how complex negotiations involving big industries will be dealt with," said Jeffrey E. Garten, undersecretary of commerce for international trade.

"There will have to be some kind of overlap between public and private involvement."

But such a strategy carries a risk of undermining the U.S. bargaining position in the framework talks. Tokyo has resisted U.S. demands to establish goals for increasing the sales of foreign goods and services in Japan, arguing that the government cannot control the purchasing decisions of private companies and individuals.

By talking to companies directly, Washington seems to be agreeing with this argument, at least for automobiles and auto parts.

"The fact is, the big issues in the automotive sector are driven by the companies themselves," said Mr. Garten, the chief U.S. negotiator on automobiles and auto parts. "To think the government is going to press a button and say, 'We're going to change the trade balance' is a mirage."

During two trips to Japan, this month and last, Mr. Garten called on the top executives of Japan's leading automakers.

Some industry and government officials say these visits reflect more the personal style of Mr. Garten than a new strategy by Washington. But others said they expected Washington to expand these personal contacts with Japan's corporate executives.

U.S. officials also met this month with the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., urging it to buy more foreign equipment.

U.S. officials have talked directly with Japanese companies in the past, as they did during previous negotiations on semiconductors. But the emphasis that Mr. Garten puts on the visits "seems to be quite higher than in the past," said one official of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

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