WASHINGTON — The White House is leaning toward accepting a Japanese proposal to meet in two weeks in Geneva as the two economic superpowers struggle to find a way to resume negotiations in their trade dispute over auto imports.
The Administration is considered likely to send a delegation to Geneva about the same time President Clinton is meeting in Canada with Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on June 15.
If so, U.S. officials apparently will have retreated from U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor's adamant assertion last week that negotiators would have enough time to end the confrontation even if any meetings were delayed until the third week of June. That timetable would leave just one week before the June 28 deadline the Administration has set for imposing tariffs on Japanese luxury auto imports. If paid on current import levels, the tariffs collected would amount to $5.9 billion a year.
Kantor also proposed meeting with Japan in Washington, but Tokyo has rejected that idea, preferring instead to negotiate in Geneva under the auspices of the new World Trade Organization--a course the Clinton Administration has tried to avoid.
If the two sides agree to talk, they will be taking their first step forward since May 16, when the United States announced that it would place tariffs of 100% on 13 high-priced models of Japanese automobiles produced by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi.
Clinton is to decide by June 28 whether to apply the sanctions, retroactive to vehicles landing here after May 20. The tariffs would nearly double the price of the cars, which now sell in the $25,000-to-$50,000 range, most likely pricing them out of the market.
The sanctions are intended to force Japan to open its lucrative auto market, the second-largest in the world, to U.S. manufacturers. The Administration is pressuring Japan to make it easier for U.S. companies to sell trucks, cars and parts for use in the assembly of new vehicles and for replacement business in Japan.
A Japanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Japanese delegates to such a Geneva meeting would focus on the narrow issue of resolving the complaint Japan filed with the WTO within days of the U.S. announcement. The official said Japan would be unwilling to conduct negotiations to resolve the trade dispute itself until the sanctions question is settled.
Japanese officials have said the sanctions are a unilateral action prohibited under the trade rules established in an international treaty signed in 1993 and just now going into effect.
The United States has argued that until the sanctions take effect, no rules have been violated.
Under regulations established by the WTO, the countries involved in such a dispute have 30 days after a complaint is filed to begin discussing the issue.
Kantor had called for meetings June 20-21 in Washington. He said conferences held before then would interfere with preparations for the annual summit of the leading industrial democracies, which will take place this year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, beginning June 15.
The White House said Wednesday evening that Clinton and Murayama will meet on that opening day. White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters aboard Air Force One that the discussions will include trade between the two nations, but he declined to provide details about the agenda.
Officials have said they want to avoid turning the meeting into a negotiating session on auto issues, because other elements of the U.S.-Japanese relationship need to be discussed.
By putting off the auto talks until several days later, Kantor would be leaving little time to end the confrontation before the deadline--a tactic that would increase the pressure on Japan to compromise.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report from Billings, Mont.