The World Trade Organization has yet to come up with a ruling on a steel dispute between the United States and an unprecedented number of economies, betraying initial expectations such a move would come as early as May.

The delayed interim ruling on the legality of America’s controversial Byrd antidumping law has raised speculation within the Japanese government on the intentions of the Geneva-based global trade watchdog.

“I believe the interim ruling has been delayed for a purely technical reason,” one senior trade official said, requesting anonymity. “The case is so difficult and complicated that panel members are taking more time than expected to hand down a verdict.”

But another senior trade official disagreed. “I believe the WTO has so far deliberately withheld the interim ruling on the Byrd case for political reasons. It probably wants to avoid complicating the already tense relations between major trading countries over the U.S. ‘safeguard’ import restrictions on foreign steel,” the official said, also asking for anonymity.

The administration of President George W. Bush invoked Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act in March, imposing “safeguard” import restrictions on a wide range of foreign steel products, including some that had previously faced antidumping duties.

The U.S. imposition of the restrictions sparked an international uproar, with some major trading partners, including the 15-nation European Union and Japan, threatening to retaliate.

Recently, however, the EU and Japan have backed down, hinting they will wait until later this month to see if the U.S. excludes more steel products from the restrictions before imposing retaliatory trade measures.

The Byrd case has sharply pitted the U.S. against Japan, the EU and nine other trading partners. In response to complaints, the WTO established a neutral panel to adjudicate the case.

The dispute-settlement panel met twice earlier this year to hear cases from both sides. It was initially expected the panel would present its interim ruling in May, before making the decision final at the WTO’s Dispute-Settlement Body in June. The losing side can appeal the panel’s verdict to the Appellate Body, the WTO’s highest court on trade fights.

The Byrd antidumping law allows Washington to compensate domestic steelmakers hurt by dumping by sharing revenues from antidumping duties. Dumping is the practice of selling goods abroad at below domestic prices or production costs.

President Bill Clinton in late October 2000 signed into law the controversial measure, which was attached as an amendment to a comprehensive agricultural spending bill.

Although Clinton and his administration acknowledged objections to the Byrd law, they reluctantly agreed to enact it so as not to kill the comprehensive farm spending bill.

Japan, the 15-nation EU and nine other economies filed a complaint with the WTO over the law, insisting that subsidizing domestic companies with revenues collected through antidumping procedures is incompatible with WTO rules.

Member economies are allowed under WTO rules to impose antidumping duties. But there is apparently no clause explicitly banning the practice of using revenues from antidumping duties as subsidies.

Japan and other economies also claim the Byrd law will further encourage American steelmakers to file antidumping complaints with the U.S. administration against foreign rivals. The nine other economies are Australia, Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, Canada and Mexico.

Although Japan and its allies in the trade row had expected the Bush administration to agree to rescind the Byrd law, it has vowed not to urge Congress to nullify the legislation.

According to government sources, the WTO panel is expected to hand down the long-awaited interim ruling on the case as early as the middle of this month.

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