U.S. parts producers will proceed with plans to lobby for a new automotive framework agreement with Japan, despite the uncertain picture painted by former Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta.

“We think the effort still needs to go forward,” says Chris Bates, executive vice president of the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Assoc. (MEMA), long an advocate of greater U.S. access to Japan's automotive market.

And he's optimistic a strategy will develop once key diplomatic jobs are filled.

“The lead agencies on trade issues — Commerce Dept. and the U.S. Trade Representative's office — have to put in place their senior management team.”

Sources in Washington tell Ward's confirmation of four nominations — three for deputy U.S. trade representative and one for undersecretary of trade and commerce — are imminent.

Mr. Mineta, now serving as Transportation Secretary in the Bush White House, visited Japan in January and made a last-ditch attempt to discuss a new U.S.-Japan Automotive Framework Agreement. Japan allowed the previous deal to expire Dec. 31 and maintains no new agreement is necessary because adequate market access is available.

Before delivering a speech in Detroit April 24, Mr. Mineta said odds of reviving discussions with Japan are “less than 50%.”

Mr. Bates describes this assessment as “premature,” while acknowledging the issue is not on Washington's “immediate” agenda.

“They're working on the tax cut program,” he says, adding he believes Washington will be receptive. “We'll certainly have to make the case. But certainly it's something we intend to do.”

A Commerce Dept. spokesman says the issue “is definitely on the department's radar,” adding Commerce Secretary Donald Evans already has met with Japanese officials.

Among the U.S. parts industry's beefs is Japan's system of garage certification, which critics claim creates environments favorable to Japanese parts producers.