Tuesday, November 30, 1999
Japan may have the second largest economy in the world after the United States, but you would hardly know it for the attention that the Asian nation has attracted at the World Trading Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle. As was the case in the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade talks that ended in 1993, Japan appears to be taking a back seat to other participants engaged in high profile controversies. Nonetheless, Tokyo's cooperation will be vital to making the proceedings, and ultimately the new round if it is launched in Seattle, a success.
In contrast to the U.S. media, which seem focused on the protests in Seattle against the WTO, the Japanese press has emphasized the substantive issues the ministers are to discuss. What is striking about the coverage is the frequency with which an anti-American tone creeps into the discussion. For example, an analyst with Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the economic daily, complained that Washington over the years has shifted the focus of multilateral trade talks from industrial goods, in which it has lost competitiveness, to agriculture and services, in which the United States continues to have a competitive advantage. The American view, inside and out of government, is that the shift to agriculture and services has occurred because many of the problems of trade in industrial goods have been solved in contrast to those in services and agriculture, which escaped serious attention for the first forty years or so of the multilateral trading system.
The Japanese media also tend to portray their positions as more or less in alignment with those of the European Union and the developing nations and in opposition to those of the United States. In fact, Tokyo finds itself in a minority position as often as not. For example, it would like the WTO to take up what it regards as excessively arbitrary and too easily implemented U.S. antidumping measures. Japanese companies often have been on the receiving end of U.S. penalties after they were found to be selling their products in this country at unreasonably low prices.
While the Japanese position has much to recommend it, it is not necessarily held by other nations. Europe, for example, does not share Tokyo's concern. Some developing nations such as India have extensive antidumping measures in place of their own. When questioned, most developing country representatives who have complaints about anti-dumping say their concern is with the transparency of the determination process and not the concept per se.
Japan is particularly isolated on the most important issue before the Seattle delegates agriculture. Although both Japan and the EU slowed progress toward agricultural liberalization in the Uruguay Round, and may do so again, the interests of the two groups are quite different. Japan wants to protect its industry against imports, especially of rice, while Europe wants to protect the incomes of its farmers and preserve a role as an agricultural exporter. The repeated references in the Japanese press to South Korea and Switzerland (both marginal players in the WTO process) as allies on the agricultural issue are suggestive of Tokyo's isolation.