Auto-imports flap complicates US-Japan summit

Harmony is what Japan seeks whenever its prime minister makes a pilgrimage to Washington. Hence, current efforts in Tokyo to keep the problem of Japanese car exports to the United States off the agenda of the coming summit between President Reagan and Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.

There is evidence of mixed emotions here.

There is, for example, some reported irritation in government circles that Mr. Suzuki is near the end of the queue of world leaders conferring with America's new President.

Particularly galling for Japan, as an economic superpower, is that it has been upstaged by neighboring South Korea, whose President Chun Doo Hwan made a triumphant Washington visit a few weeks ago.

But at the same time, officials here don't want Mr. Suzuki to face outright US demands for firm commitments on curbing car exports, highly likely, if he makes his visit too soon.

The Japanese have taken note of US trade representative Bill Brock's warning that the car issue is a "political time bomb" that could explode at any moment.

A recurrent fear is the vision of that explosion occuring while Mr. Suzuki is in Washington and has no room to maneuver.

Everyone remembers with embarrassment a 1971 summit between President Nixon and the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato dominated by similar US outrage over surging Japanese textile exports.

Backed into a corner, Mr. Sato used a vague face-saving Japanese formula phrase his fellow countrymen would have understood as indicating he intended to do nothing. But the Americans translated it as a promise of firm action.

Mr. Suzuki had hoped to visit Washington in early April. The most likely dates now are during the first week of May.

This delay has been widely interpreted here as motivated by Japanese concern over fallout from the car problem -- with Japan being blamed for many of the US auto industry's current ills of sagging sales and rising unemployment.

President Reagan's tight schedule in April -- meeting other world leaders -- however, is officially cited here as the reason for the postponement.

Speaking in the Diet (parliament) this week, Trade and Industry Ministry Rokusuke Tanaka said he believed the car issue would be on the summit agenda. And, in answer to opposition questions, the minister admitted it would be difficult to reach a solution before Mr. Suzuki's scheduled departure.

Stressing that the resolution of the auto- imports problem has reached a "very delicate stage," Mr. Tanaka indicated a strong possibility he may Washington in April in the hope of settling the issue "once and for all."

Last year Japanese car exports to the US reached a record 1.9 million. Efforts are under way in Congress to clip the figure by some 20 percent this year.

The Trade and Industry Ministry's plan currently is to hold exports in the January-to- March quarter below 450,000 units, which would be merely a token cutback, considering that 461,000 cars were shipped out in the same period last year.

Referring to this plan, Mr. Tanaka told the Diet: "This could open the way for a solution. But I except the issue to drag on for some time."

The government is still placing its hopes on self-restraint by the main automakers here under a loose system of ministerial "administrative guidance." There is concern, however, that the US will be encouraged to t ake an even tougher line than before.

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