Staff writer

Japan is expected to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization by the end of next week over a U.S. antidumping ruling against certain Japanese steel imports.

The action itself is a foregone conclusion. In a hastily called press conference on Oct. 20, International Trade and Industry Minister Takashi Fukaya had already announced that Japan would file such a complaint.

Fukaya said at the time that Japan would specifically complain to the Geneva-based watchdog on international commerce about the ruling handed down in June against hot-rolled steel products imported from Japan.

Fukaya and other Japanese government officials claim that the U.S. is suspected of violating WTO rules by abusing the antidumping measures to restrict imports of the major Japanese steel products.

But the question is: Why has Tokyo have waited for so long — nearly one month — to actually file the WTO complaint?

In most of the previous cases where Japan has filed trade complaints with the WTO against its trading partners, the country has actually done so only several days — or even hours — after announcing a decision to take action.

“Japan has had to wait, at least until the middle of this month, simply because of scheduling difficulties for trade negotiators on both sides,” says a senior official at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

If the WTO complaint over the steel dispute had been filed before then, Tokyo and Washington would have had to hold “bilateral consultations” either immediately before or even during the forthcoming WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, the MITI official says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The bilateral consultations constitute the first stage of dispute-settlement procedures set by the WTO. The bilateral talks must be held within 30 days of a trade complaint being filed with the WTO.

If two or more countries embroiled in a trade dispute fail to resolve it through bilateral consultations within 60 days of a WTO complaint being filed, a complainant country can request the establishment of a neutral WTO panel to adjudicate the case.

The WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle will be held for four days starting on Nov. 30 to officially launch a new round of global trade liberalization negotiations.

But the MITI official’s reasoning does not seem to be convincing enough. The official says Tokyo wants to hold the first round of bilateral consultations with Washington around mid-December. If so, then why did Tokyo announce a decision to file a WTO complaint so early?

An answer to this question apparently lies in Tokyo’s strategy of rallying support for its side in the dispute from other countries ahead of the WTO ministerial talks.

To prevent an abuse of antidumping measures by its trading partners, especially the U.S., Japan strongly insists on putting a thorough review of the WTO’s antidumping trade provisions on the formal agenda for the new round of global trade negotiations. But Washington is vehemently objecting to that idea.

Whether the Japanese strategy will succeed or not will only be known after the Seattle talks actually end.

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