NEW YORK (Kyodo) Major Japanese automakers are expanding their production footholds in North America in a move aimed partly at meeting strong demand for Japanese cars and partly to defuse a possible trade spat with the United States.

Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. are performing strongly in U.S. sales on the back of high crude oil prices. In the meantime, they are worried about the growing risk of a resurgence of economic friction between Japan and the United States.

Their jitters stem largely from the fact that Japanese carmakers’ local production ratios — the ratios of their production in North America to total U.S. sales — are on the decline while their exports are increasing rapidly.

Specifically, Toyota saw its local output ratio fall to 53.7 percent in 2006 from 61.9 percent in 2005 and Honda’s slid to 77 percent from 80 percent. Nissan’s ratio was unchanged at 79 percent in 2006.

The three makers hope greater investment in U.S. production bases and expansion of employment at their factories will help nip in the bud a bilateral trade dispute.

In mid-April, Toyota held a groundbreaking ceremony for its eighth auto assembly plant in North America in Blue Springs, Miss., and another ceremony to mark the start of production of Toyota vehicles at a factory in Indiana operated by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.

“We’d like to contribute to the local community through automobile production,” Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said during the groundbreaking ceremony in Mississippi.

“Localization is now the key word,” Watanabe said, suggesting the Japanese auto giant’s intention to forestall a possible trade row with the United States.

Toyota is now projected to leapfrog the largest U.S. automaker, General Motors Corp., in this year’s global vehicle sales. But its supply is failing to meet robust demand, thus bringing its local production ratio far below the 60 percent line.

In order to avoid trade friction, the automaker is eyeing construction of its ninth and 10th assembly plants in North America.

Meanwhile, Honda is set to establish a new assembly plant in Indiana in fall 2008, its seventh factory in North America.

Of the top three Japanese automakers, Honda was the first to launch local production. But the ratio dropped to 77 percent in 2006, the first fall in four years, from 80 percent in 2005 and 79 percent in 2004.

The fall in the ratio indicates Honda’s production capacity in North America is still not sufficient.

Nissan recently raised its annual production capacity at its Mexican factory to 530,000 vehicles. The company continues to attach importance to the profitable U.S. market although it saw a decline in U.S. sales last year.

Nissan President and Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn said Nissan may consider making use of assembly plants to be shut down by GM and other U.S. carmakers in the future although there are no specific plans right now.

For the whole of last year, Japan’s exports of motor vehicles to the United States soared about 34 percent from the previous year to 2.49 million units, reflecting the strong popularity of fuel-efficient Japanese vehicles.

By contrast, the Big Three U.S. automakers — GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler group — saw their combined share in the U.S. marketplace fall to just above 50 percent.

Some industry analysts warn that Japanese carmakers could be singled out for criticism against the background of lackluster sales by U.S. makers.

“Beefing up our production capacity in North America is one of the most important tasks,” a Toyota executive said.

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