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Staff writer

Japan will ask the World Trade Organization as early as next month to set up a neutral panel to rule on Japan’s complaint against the United States’ controversial 1916 antidumping law aimed at restricting steel and other imports.

Government sources said Thursday that the request will probably be filed at a monthly meeting of the WTO’s Dispute-Settlement Body in late May. The WTO is the Geneva-based body that sets international trade rules.

Japan filed a complaint with the WTO on Feb. 11 over the U.S. Antidumping Act of 1916, claiming that the old law is protectionist and in violation of WTO rules.

The two countries held “bilateral consultations” in Geneva on March 17 to discuss the Japanese complaint, in the first stage of the WTO’s dispute-settlement process. The planned Japanese filing of a request for a neutral WTO panel to adjudicate the case marks the second stage of the process.

Japan’s February filing of the WTO complaint came amid a steel trade row with the U.S. Japanese steel exports to the U.S. have been dropping in recent months amid what Japanese government and industry officials see as rising protectionist sentiment in Washington.

In February, the U.S. Commerce Department set preliminary antidumping duties on Japanese and Brazilian hot-rolled steel imports in response to U.S. industry complaints.

Under the WTO’s dispute-settlement process, Japan can request the establishment of a neutral WTO panel if it and the U.S. fail to reach a settlement through bilateral consultations within 60 days of the Japanese trade complaint being filed.

This theoretically means that Japan can file the request at the next monthly meeting of the WTO’s Dispute-Settlement Body at the end of this month.

The sources said, however, that Tokyo will not file the request at the forthcoming DSB meeting, in part because it needs more time to prepare for the legal battle with Washington.

Another reason for delaying the action is that Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will meet with President Bill Clinton at the White House on May 3, just several days after the next DSB meeting, the sources said.

Disputes over steel trade and some other sectors, including insurance, flat-glass and telecommunications, are expected to be high on the bilateral agenda at the Obuchi-Clinton talks.

“We should refrain from taking any action that could provoke the U.S. Congress, as well as the Clinton administration, immediately before the Obuchi-Clinton summit,” one source said.

Japan’s February filing of its complaint over the antidumping law came about three months after an American steelmaker filed a suit under the law with a U.S. district court against U.S. subsidiaries of three major Japanese trading firms — Mitsui & Co., Itochu Corp. and Marubeni Corp.

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