US turns up pressure on Japan to tear down construction barriers

The White House is moving closer to imposing trade restrictions on Japan for allegedly shutting United States companies out its construction market. Commerce Secretary C. William Verity Jr., in his first public statement on the issue, says he would endorse taking punitive measures against Japan.

``The time has come when we have to make a move,'' Mr. Verity told reporters at a breakfast meeting yesterday.

The move may come shortly. The Economic Policy Council, a top-level White House group, was scheduled to meet yesterday afternoon to discuss what to do next on the issue. If the EPC recommends a trade action, then US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter might soon begin such an action.

At the same time, Verity indicated that the Japanese might come back with a new proposal in the next few days to further the negotiations. Only last week, a Japanese delegation left Washington after failing to make any progress on the politically sensitive issue. ``Both sides are digging in,'' Verity said.

In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is closely allied to the construction industry. In the US, however, Verity said that the construction issue has become ``a symbol'' of how the Japanese have not opening their markets. ``It's one that everyone can understand, and it has been going on for a year and a half,'' he stated.

Congress is keenly interested in the negotiations. On Tuesday, Senate-House conferees who are working on the omnibus trade bill voted to include an amendment that would force the administration to impose trade sanctions against Japan for not opening up its construction markets.

In 1987, the Japanese won about $3 billion in private construction contracts in the US.

Last year, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska and Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas sponsored legislation that prohibited Japan from bidding on US public works projects until it opened its markets to US companies. Senator Murkowski said he intends to extend the legislation this year.

The Japanese maintain they have made progress on the construction issue. During a visit by Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita to Washington in January, Japan agreed to end requirements that foreign companies have experience in Japan before they could bid on construction projects.

The US had criticized the provision as creating a ``Catch-22'' situation for US companies.

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