WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration fired the opening salvo yesterday in its long-promised trade offensive with Japan, accusing Tokyo of denying U.S. companies fair access to Japan's $700 billion construction market.
The White House called for immediate negotiations on the issue and threatened to impose sanctions against Japan unless progress is made within 60 days on resolving the matter.
Tokyo shot back an unusually stinging rebuke, denying the charges and rejecting the terms the administration laid down.
Calling the White House action "extremely regrettable," Japan's Foreign Ministry said the government "has no intention of sitting at the negotiation table as long as unilateral sanctional pressure and a unilateral deadline are in place."
President Clinton's top trade negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, also ordered a review of Japan's purchases of supercomputers. He threatened to take "appropriate action" if he finds Tokyo is discriminating against U.S. makers of that equipment, as American companies have long alleged.
Japan's auto industry also said yesterday that it had warned the U.S. government that higher tariffs on imported minivans would seriously harm bilateral trade relations.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association said that raising import duties on minivans would be an "unequivocal violation " of international trade laws.
The letter was in response to growing speculation the Clinton administration will soon announce a plan to reclassify all minivans and many sport utility vehicles as trucks, which would boost their import tariff to 25 percent from the current 2.5 percent.
Yesterday's actions reflected an escalating battle of words between the United States and Japan, the world's largest economic superpowers, which last year shared $145 billion in trans-Pacific trade.
The White House actions came two weeks after Mr. Clinton embarrassed Japanese officials by brusquely criticizing trade relations at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.
Mr. Clinton told Mr. Miyazawa that relations between the two largest economic superpowers in the world would deteriorate unless Tokyo began demonstrating specific, measurable progress in reducing the two countries' trade imbalance, which last year was $49 billion in Japan's favor.
Mr. Miyazawa immediately rejected the approach, regarding it as a threatening ultimatum unacceptable to the Japanese.
"They don't like being under that kind of pressure to deliver," Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown told reporters at a breakfast yesterday. But, Mr. Brown said, the administration will continue to insist that Japan increase its imports of specific products and services because "only things that are measured and monitorable will produce such results."
"Despite years of negotiations and two trade agreements, the Japanese construction market remains fundamentally closed to foreign firms," Mr. Kantor said. "U.S. construction firms, competitive worldwide, are experiencing serious market access problems in the Japanese construction market."
Mr. Kantor's accusations came as part of his office's annual review of trade relations. The report also identified Brazil, India and Thailand as countries that deny adequate protection against piracy and counterfeiting of U.S. intellectual property protected by patents, trademarks and copyrights. The action made them subject to further investigation and possible sanctions.