Bush's 'success' leaves automakers looking glum Big Three get little from the Japanese


TOKYO -- George Bush called his trip to Asia a success yesterday, but he looked a little lonely.

None of the automakers was pleased.

Not the ones he recruited from the Big Three American auto companies to join his trip to Asia in search of "jobs, jobs, jobs" for recession-weary U.S. workers.

What they and U.S. government negotiators extracted from the Japanese after their 26,000-mile odyssey was less than a drop in the bucket, the executives said.

Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi -- the Japanese manufacturers that have been killing them in the market -- weren't happy, either.

The Americans should concentrate more on making cars people want to buy, they said, and work less on pressuring Japan.

The president, whose bottom line is political and thus capable of greater abstraction, had a happier version of his visit, which ended yesterday.

In a ceremonial news conference with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa yesterday, the president declared his unorthodox ,X summit-level sales mission "a success." The bruising trade negotiations "advanced our goal of leveling the playing field" for U.S. exporters, he said.

And on his return flight to Washington, Mr. Bush told reporters: "I think there's every reason to believe we did accomplish a lot.

"It will take a while for people to realize what is going to happen," he said, according to a pool report. "But I look at it as a beginning. We made some major accomplishments and will go from here, follow up."

But the men from the Big Three in Detroit had not come along to get a glimpse of a future level playing field. They were here to fight for companies that are hemorrhaging dollars by the billions, closing factories by the scores and laying off workers by the tens of thousands.

"This isn't a business for sissies," Robert Stempel, chief executive officer of General Motors Corp., blurted out near the end of a U.S. automakers' news conference yesterday.

His was the company that announced plans three weeks ago to close 21 plants and terminate 70,000 workers.

Mr. Bush's traveling companions from the Big Three are worldly men who knew they were certain to be asked how they liked what they got. They were undaunted by the niceties one might expect from presidential guests.

"I am not smiling," said Ford Motor Co.'s Harold A. Poling.

"Doesn't sound like a lot of cars," said Chrysler Corp.'s Lee A. Iacocca.

For three days and most of three nights, Japanese and U.S. negotiators sat facing each other. Neither side ever seemed to hear the other.

The Americans accused the Japanese of keeping their auto market closed to outsiders.

The Japanese accused the Americans of forsaking Mr. Bush's free-market principles for "managed trade" by demanding accountable targets for U.S. imports to Japan.

Throughout, the spotlight was on automobiles and auto parts. They account for three-fourths of Japan's $41 billion-a-year surplus in two-way trade.

"I'd be embarrassed to show this to the president," Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher Sr. was quoted as saying at one point, waving a copy of a Japanese "action plan" on two-way trade.

This morning, aides to Mr. Bush and Mr. Mosbacher carried that very plan onto Air Force One, the mark of Mr. Bush's success. It is the sole tangible product of their unprecedented campaign to pressure the Japanese into opening their auto market.

It calls for:

* Doubling Japanese car parts imports from the United States to $4 billion by 1994.

* Increasing U.S.-made parts used in Japan's factories in the United States by $10 billion, to about $19 billion in 1994.

* Selling 19,700 additional U.S.-made cars a year -- beyond the 35,000 now sold here annually -- through the distribution networks of Japan's top automakers.

It was a package that economists immediately said would have scant impact on the trade deficit even if it worked. The 19,700 cars, for example, need to be weighed against 1.75 million that Japan exports to the United States every year.

And it was wrapped in some huge "ifs."

For example, it will depend on whether the Japanese companies' U.S. factories increase production by 50 percent by 1994, as scheduled. The factories to handle the increase are being built, but there's a recession. No one here would forecast whether that "if" would be met. If it isn't, the promise is off.

And another "if."

It depends if you count as "American-made" the cars and parts produced on U.S. soil by Japanese-owned or affiliated factories. U.S. government negotiators, who can't say one factory that hires American workers is better than another, said they had to count them.

The men from the Big Three begged to differ.

"We're here to talk about goods manufactured by the traditional U.S. automotive manufacturing base," Mr. Poling said. "What the Japanese make in their plants -- here or in America -- doesn't count for us."

Whatever Mr. Bush's mission did or didn't accomplish in Japan, his decision to bring along the auto men, and a phalanx of other top corporate executives, dramatically raised Japan's already high profile as the United States' new rival superpower.

Automobiles rumble deep inside the American psyche and pump money into many supplier industries, from aluminum to electronics.

All are hurting these days, and many of their laid-off workers vote.

The question now is whether Mr. Bush's high-stakes gamble will backfire by making protectionism far harder for politicians to resist in a recession-darkened election year.

Mr. Bush has always said that protectionism is a threat to economic growth. He said it again at his news conference with Mr. Miyazawa.

But the president's Big Three traveling companions left Tokyo wondering whether he may have given protectionism a gigantic unintended boost.

Donald W. Riegle Jr., a Democratic senator from the auto state, Michigan, has been threatening to join Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri in introducing a bill requiring Japan to reduce the $41 billion trade deficit by 20 percent a year or face trade sanctions.

The auto men demanded precisely the same of the Japanese throughout their days in Tokyo.

"Beginning with 20 percent in 1992," Ford's Mr. Poling said yesterday. Not by law, of course, Mr. Poling hastened to add.

"We've been clear on that from the outset," he said. "We are for freer trade, not for protectionism."

Then a reporter asked whether a moment would come when it would be time to "threaten to close the U.S. market to Japanese cars."

"I think it's very, very close," he replied.

When Mr. Riegle and Mr. Gephardt read what Mr. Bush got and what the Big Three leaders were saying, would they file their legislation?

"I'd guess they'd go ahead," Mr. Poling said.

"I expect so," Mr. Stempel said.

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