West warns Japan this could be free trade's last chance

Japan is within weeks of announcing new measures to open its domestic market to increased imports of Western goods.

But the United States and the European Community warned this week that if the measures fall short of expectations, protectionist pressures directed against Japan may be too hard to resist, and the open trading system would be the loser.

''Actions would have to be taken which may not be in the interests of any of the trading nations,'' US Special Trade Representative William E. Brock said May 13, following two days of informal discussions among senior trade officials from the US, Japan, the EC, and Canada.

At a rambling 16th-century chateau 25 miles south of Paris, the officials -- joined by nearly 30 advisers -- sat down with collars open and sleeves rolled up to grapple with purely 20th-century issues.

The meeting was a follow-up to discussions held earlier this year among the four major trading entities in Key Biscayne, Fla. ''We did not meet to negotiate , but simply to continue close consultations on trade matters,'' Wilhelm Haferkamp, EC external affairs commissioner, said. There was no fixed agenda. But high on the list was the long-awaited so-called second package of trade liberalization measures to be unveiled by the Japanese government in the next few weeks.

The first package, disclosed earlier this year in the wake of strong pressure from the US and the EC, included measures aimed at lifting certain tariff and nontariff barriers to imports from other countries. The package was called a step in the right direction, but not enough.

Shintaro Abe, Japan's international trade and industry minister, told journalists May 13 that he had presented his Western counterparts with a ''sketchy outline'' of the new package, which, he said, would be disclosed publicly before the seven-nation economic summit to be held in Versailles during the first week of June.

Calling them ''fine-tuned improvements,'' Mr. Abe said that the new measures would include tariff reductions on manufactured goods. The Japanese minister did not mention new steps to be taken toward opening up the domestic market to imports of farm products -- an area to which the US and the EC have attached considerable importance. Both hope to boost farm exports significantly beyond present levels.

''Progress must be made in that area,'' Mr. Brock said. He emphasized that it is ''most important'' that agriculture be included in the trade liberalization measures.

American officials have argued for some time that while the Japanese face few if any difficulties in penetrating the American market, the US has been denied access to the Japanese market in the agricultural field. Currently, for example, there are Japanese quota restrictions on 27 commodity groups -- 18 of which are farm products.

US officials have also complained that the Japanese marketing structure and distribution are discriminatory against imports. Such practices, according to the officials, have also cost the Japanese consumer heavily. Beef, for example, costs three to five times what it does in the US, they point out.

But overall, Mr. Brock came away from the meeting here convinced that the new measures to be disclosed by the Japanese ''within days'' will go a long way toward appeasing Western concerns about protectionism in the East Asia.

''A great deal remains to be done,'' Mr. Brock said.

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