U.S., Japan try to restart talks

May 20, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Against the troubling backdrop of a still-growing U.S. trade deficit with Japan, U.S. and Japanese representatives broke three months of near silence yesterday and resumed efforts to negotiate greater access to Japanese markets.

Monthly figures from the Commerce Department showed the overall U.S. trade deficit narrowed greatly in March, by 18.5 percent, to $7.46 billion. But the imbalance with Japan grew by 25.4 percent, to its third highest monthly level, $5.8 billion.

As the report was being released, emissaries from the new Japanese government of Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata were sitting down in the offices of the U.S. Trade Representative, trying to re-establish the talks that were broken off Feb. 11 when U.S. and Japanese officials were unable to agree on a plan to open the Japanese market in four crucial economic sectors.

U.S. officials approached the meeting with a "wait-and-see" attitude, and said during a dinner break that they had not yet heard enough from the Japanese to warrant reopening the stalled negotiations. But, they said, the meetings would continue into the evening and could resume today.

With the Hata government still trying to get its political footing, Clinton administration officials are reluctant to push it to make risky concessions.

Negotiations fell apart when Hata's predecessor, Morihiro Hosokawa, visited the White House earlier in the year. Now, with the new prime minister expressing interest in resuming talks, "it's not the best thing in the world to start throwing furniture around the room," a senior U.S. trade official said.

Throughout its first year in office, the Clinton administration sought ways to pressure Japan to compromise on the trade front, demanding that Tokyo agree to establish objective criteria for measuring progress in purchasing foreign products.

Senior officials are denying that there has been a shift from that approach, but their comments have suggested it has less emphasis. They said there is no deadline for progress, and steered clear of creating any expectation that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hata would be able to reach an agreement by the time they meet at the international economic summit in Naples, Italy, in July.

After yesterday's meeting got under way, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor told reporters during a recess that "we had an exchange of very detailed ideas." He called the session "a good start."

The Japanese team, led by Sadayuki Hayashi, the deputy

foreign minister, and Sozaburo Okamatsu, the vice minister of trade, was less talkative. "We will see," Mr. Okamatsu said when asked whether he was optimistic about the prospects for the talks.

The monthly trade figures, which are routinely volatile, showed U.S. exports of goods at a record high level, $42.17 billion. Imports were valued at $54.21 billion, also a record. A surplus in the area of services -- investment operations, entertainment and travel, for example -- cut the overall trade deficit.

The Commerce Department reported that the increase in

exports was fueled by jumps in the U.S. sales of gold bullion, commercial airplanes, telecommunications equipment and engines.

"These exports occur in areas of rising U.S. competitiveness, and coincide with some early signs of better economic growth in the industrialized nations, particularly in Europe," Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown said. But he said that despite such month-to-month jumps, "continued slow growth abroad remains a drag on U.S. economic expansion."

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