U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick warned Japan on Friday not to take retaliatory action against the United States over its decision to impose tariffs on a range of steel imports, Japanese government officials said.

Zoellick issued the remarks during a 25-minute telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, the officials said.

The United States on March 20 said it was following World Trade Organization guidelines in imposing safeguard tariffs of up to 30 percent on a range of steel imports, ostensibly to protect antiquated U.S. steel mills.

Economists inside and outside the U.S., however, condemned the George W. Bush administration move, calling it a bald political ploy top garner votes.

The tariffs prompted the European Union, Japan and other steel exporters to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

In meetings with Zoellick in Tokyo earlier this month, Kawaguchi and trade minister Takeo Hiranuma urged the U.S. to scrap the tariffs or compensate Japan for expected losses on its exports, declaring that Japan would unilaterally retaliate otherwise.

Friday, Zoellick acknowledged that Japan has the right to seek settlement of trade disputes under WTO rules, according to the Japanese officials.

It would run counter to WTO rules, however, for Japan to take any countermeasures on a unilateral basis, Zoellick was quoted as saying.

Kawaguchi stressed the need for the U.S. to lift the import curbs and offer compensation measures, the officials said.

Zoellick told Kawaguchi he would see what the U.S. could do regarding the Japanese claims, they said.

Kawaguchi and Zoellick agreed at a meeting earlier this month to continue their negotiations by telephone.

Trans-Pacific FTA plan

Donald Evans, United States secretary of commerce, expressed his support Friday for a plan to draw up a free-trade agreement between Japan and the U.S. in the future, describing the proposal as “worthwhile.”

“I think it’s a very worthwhile goal for us to pursue,” said Evans, who is visiting Japan as part of a tour of Asia.

He added that discussions on any agreement could begin in the near future.

Evans’ remark was in response to a question about plans for a trans-Pacific FTA between the world’s largest and second-largest economies during a speech to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

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