U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick responded coolly Tuesday to Japanese demands for compensation over U.S. steel import tariffs, meaning Japan may be closer to imposing unilateral retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports.

In a 40-minute telephone conference with Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Takeo Hiranuma, Zoellick said that it is difficult to give a clear answer on the compensation issue due to the “political context” in the U.S., according to METI officials.

After the U.S. imposed temporary tariffs on steel products March 20, Tokyo urged Washington to offer compensation in the form of reduced tariffs on other Japanese imports.

Zoellick said Washington is reviewing a list of products for possible compensation, which had been prepared by Tokyo, according to the officials.

After the telephone conference with Zoellick, Hiranuma said that the two countries will continue to talk over the steel dispute.

“While preparing for retaliatory measures, we will continue to talk with the U.S., since the Japan-U.S. ties are important,” Hiranuma said. “It is natural to examine the measures . . . whether or not we adopt any.”

Hiranuma is expected to meet Zoellick on May 1 in Washington.

In a meeting with Zoellick on April 11, Hiranuma said Tokyo would start preparing for retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports to Japan if the U.S. does not agree to Tokyo’s compensation demands by May 1.

METI believes Tokyo is entitled to impose retaliatory tariffs comparable with U.S. tariffs on steel plates imported from Japan, one of the steel products subject to the U.S. import curbs.

Exports of Japanese plates to the U.S. amounted to $18 million in 2001.

Based on the 2001 figure, it is estimated that Tokyo can charge about $5.4 million in retaliatory duties on U.S. imports in the first year, according to METI.

METI claims that worldwide exports of steel plates to the U.S. decreased from 1.93 million tons in 1996 to 951,000 tons in 2000. But the U.S. used different data in declaring overall steel trade meets the requirements for safeguard import curbs under World Trade Organization rules.

The U.S. imposed three-year tariffs of up to 30 percent on an array of steel products to help the struggling U.S. steel industry, saying a surge in imports had hurt domestic producers.

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