TOKYO -- Brinksmanship is a Japanese specialty. So are smoke-and-mirror agreements to solve problems and mollify trading partners.
Yet in reaching a last minute agreement in Geneva this June, Japan needed no smoke or mirrors because no Japanese commitments were made to U.S. trade negotiators, not even the empty kind favored by Tokyo in dozens of deals cut at the 11th hour over the past 30 years.
"It was a total victory for the Japanese, who only agreed to do what they planned to do all along," says Stephen Usher senior general manager, Kleinwort Benson International in Tokyo.
The consensus among observers here is that legitimate trade issues were disregarded by U.S. officials to pursue an automotive industry dispute with little or no merit. "There was nothing new about the expansion plans of Japanese automakers. I had this information six months ago," explains Matthew Ruddick, an industry analyst with James Capel Pacific in Tokyo.
Observers here attribute the lack of meaningful Japanese concessions to the weakness of the U.S. case, strongly colored by Presidential politics.
"It was obvious that the starting point was how Clinton could win votes in the 1996 election," says Koji Endo, senior vice president of Morgan Stanley International in Tokyo.
U.S. complaints about a closed market sounded extra hollow following statements earlier this year by Rainer Jahn, president of Mercedes-Benz Japan, that the Japanese car market has been open for some time.
Although U.S. officials claim victory in Geneva, the agreement hammered out after months of hard bargaining has no bite. No firm promises were made and no enforcement mechanism is in place.
Chief Japanese negotiator and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto emphasizes that the numbers flaunted in the U.S. "are simply Washington's projections." In fact, it is Japan, not the United States, that has made the most solid gain.
For example, had U.S. sanctions been imposed against Japanese luxury cars and remained in effect for 12 months, Mr. Ruddick estimates the profits of the five targeted automakers would have been reduced by [yin]210 billion -- approximately half their projected profits for the current fiscal year ending March 31, 1996.
Andrew Blair-Smith, an industry analyst with BZW (Japan), sees a less obvious advantage for automakers here. "The Geneva agreement allows them to do what they needed to do abroad while isolating them from social criticism at home. Now they can blame the Americans."
Any benefits for U.S. auto and parts makers will most likely be a result of changing economic circumstances, not a product of the Geneva agreement.
The high-flying yen, up 14% in the first half of 1995 and 300% since 1985, is hollowing out Japan's industrial base, forcing more production offshore. For example,Motor Corp's. projected 4% operating profit growth for 1996 is already in jeopardy. "We can't say anything now that the dollar is in the low 80s (yen)," says Executive Vice President Hiroshi Okuda.
The continuing shift of production includes more assembly plants in the U.S., Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere -- and more keiretsu supplier plants to feed them parts and components.
Efficient, low-cost U.S. parts and components makers may be able to horn in and get a larger piece of this action for practical as well as political reasons. But no pledges have been made.
Japan's infamous shaken system of periodic vehicle inspection and expensive "repair" was already under review, but foreign partsmakers have little cause for elation.
Traditional Japanese sleight of hand was evident with the announced reduction of four in the number of "critical" replacement parts that must be from original equipment manufacturers. Struts, shocks, power steering and trailer hitches are not noted for quick wear and short life.
On the other hand, U.S. Big Three complaints about their inability to sign up automobile dealerships in Japan appear dated.Motor Co., in collaboration with Motor Corp., already has its own dealer network. And Corp. announced plans to spend $100 million to up its share in Chrysler Japan Sales Ltd. to 70% and have this Japanese subsidiary buy Seibu Motor Sales.
Yet despite pious disclaimers from Japanese automakers, a recent survey indicates some 40% of Japanese dealers would like to sell other marques but refrain for fear of reprisals from automakers here. This suggests encouraging letters to them from MITI will be a waste of postage.
Otherwise, says an industry expert in Tokyo, "the only way to really open up this part of the market would be forand and the rest to announce plans for dual dealerships," an unlikely scenario.
Some Tokyo analysts suspect that, despite pro forma support, Detroit automakers were really not all that enthusiastic about the table-thumping on their behalf by U.S. trade negotiators.
"Geneva was mostly political showmanship. The Big Three don't have massive hopes for the Japanese car market," says Mr. Blair-Smith.
More critical in the opinion of impartial Tokyo observers is the loss of U.S. credibility as U.S. negotiators gear up for another assault on Japanese trade barriers, specifically freer access for Eastman Kodak film and Federal Express delivery services, for which the the U.S. appears to have strong cases.
Yet after Geneva, Japanese backbones have stiffened. "The recent trade negotiations were such a debacle that Americans are going to have a difficult time arguing trade issues with conviction. No one will take them seriously," says Mr. Usher.