Japan and the United States have almost reached an agreement to hold high-level deregulation talks in Washington next Monday and Tuesday ahead of their bilateral summit, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.

The deregulation talks are expected to smooth the way for the May 5 summit in Washington between Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and U.S. President Bill Clinton, the official said.

Topping the agenda at presummit talks would be the issue of reducing interconnection fees charged by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

The Japanese and U.S. governments had initially intended to settle the interconnection charges issue by the end of March. However, the two sides remain far apart over the margin of reduction.

Japan has proposed cutting NTT access charges by 22.5 percent over four years, while the U.S. is demanding a cut of up to 50 percent over a two-year period.

The deregulation talks would also probably cover competition policy and other areas.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukushiro Nukaga called Foreign Ministry and Posts and Telecommunications Ministry officials in charge of the deregulation issue to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

Nukaga instructed the officials to consider whether Japan will be able to strike a deal with the U.S. before the summit, according to government officials.

The senior Foreign Ministry official said Japan hopes that if the two governments reach an agreement at the planned meeting, they will issue a joint report after the Mori-Clinton summit.

But as Washington does not intend to conclude an agreement separate from the most difficult issue of NTT access charges, prospects for a joint report are uncertain, say government sources familiar with the negotiations.

Base issue off agenda

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will not champion Okinawa’s demand for a time limit on the U.S. military’s use of a planned airport when he meets with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington on May 5, Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai indicated Monday.

Japan will construct a joint military-civilian airport in Nago, northern Okinawa. , to take over the air operations that the U.S. Marine Corps presently conduct from Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, in central Okinawa.

The government remained noncommittal regarding Okinawa’s demand for a 15-year time limit, but said in its decision that it would take up the issue during meetings with the United States.

Asked whether the question will be brought up at the summit on May 5, Yanai informed a news conference that Tokyo has already conveyed Okinawa Prefecture’s demand to the U.S. in ministerial-level meetings.

“The (December) Cabinet decision does not say Japan will deal with the issue at all levels of meetings with Washington,” Yanai said, suggesting that Mori will not raise the matter at the summit with Clinton.

In January, Defense Agency Director General Tsutomu Kawara conveyed the demand to U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

The matter was also taken up in a meeting in February between Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State.

In these meetings, the U.S. voiced opposition to any plans to set a time limit on the new airport, citing possible changes in the international situation in the region.

Japan’s seemingly low-key position on the time limit apparently indicates a desire to prevent the matter from casting a shadow over the July summit of the Group of Eight nations in Nago.

The governments of Okinawa and Nago have stated that they will accept the new airport only if a 15-year limit is set on its use by the U.S. military.

Yanai said the proposed time limit is “a sensitive issue” and there are a variety of opinions on the matter domestically.

Japan and the U.S. are both of the opinion that the issue of the relocation of the Futenma base should be resolved “quietly,” Yanai said.