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The Japan-U.S. row over beef imports looms as a grave problem that could develop into serious bilateral friction. Until recently the two countries had enjoyed what many experts regarded as the best relations yet in the postwar years. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi supported U.S. President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, and dispatched Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq.

In the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, Bush managed to prevent beef trade from becoming an issue in consideration of his personal friendship with Koizumi.

In January, however, beef trade did emerge as a new political issue in Washington as Congress started a new session. On March 9, Bush made a personal telephone call to Koizumi, asking him to try harder to lift Japan’s ban on beef imports from the United States.

In Congress, a group of House members proposed a resolution urging the Bush administration to impose economic sanctions against Japan unless it resumes beef imports.

Koizumi must take the political bull by the horns to nip Japan-U.S. economic friction in the bud. It might have seemed unusual to some for Bush to ask Tokyo to set a date for resuming beef imports, but Bush had appointed Gov. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, a major livestock state, as agriculture secretary for his second administration. Johanns, on taking office in January, pledged to seek the resumption of beef exports to Japan as his top priority.

On March 14, a group of seven influential senators met with Japan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ryozo Kato and demanded that Japan resume imports of U.S. beef soon.

In its 2005 report on trade, the Bush administration said beef was the priority issue in Japan-U.S. trade and pledged efforts to take all appropriate measures to resolve the impasse amid mounting criticism of Japan.

Japan has banned imports of U.S. beef since December 2003 when the first case of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), was detected in the U.S. Unlike Japan, the U.S. does not blanket-test all cattle for BSE.

Koizumi and Bush agreed in their summit in September on the need for an early resumption of beef imports. The next month Japanese and U.S. government officials agreed to that beef from cattle less than 20 months old, which surveys show are unlikely to be infected with BSE, would be acceptable. Five months later, though, Japan has not moved to resume imports, frustrating U.S. officials.

On March 11, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and House members summoned Ambassador Kato and warned that further delays in resuming beef imports would lead to economic sanctions against Japan. The lawmakers were reacting to Koizumi’s failure to set a date for resuming imports in his telephone talks with Bush.

The lawmakers’ tough talk reflects frustrations in the U.S. livestock industry, a major power base for Bush, who hails from Texas, one of the top cattle-producing states. Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and other cattle-producing states, in the Midwest and South, played a major role in Bush’s re-election last year. Bush swept eight of the 10 major cattle-producing states, while Democrat John Kerry won California and Wisconsin.

The Bush administration, which depends on congressional support for his proposed Social Security reforms, cannot afford to disregard congressional moves over beef trade. Beef may account for only a fraction of Japan-U.S. trade but is politically important. Is Koizumi aware of this?

In the 1970s and the 1980s, there was bruising trade friction between Japan and the U.S. over Japan’s liberalization of beef and citrus imports. The Japanese government should realize that a misstep in the current beef row could lead to another serious conflict.

The government’s Food Safety Commission is responsible for deciding whether to resume beef imports. As a neutral body, it is supposed to base its judgments on scientific information, regardless of political pressure. But resumption involves a slow, complicated process and will begin only after:

* An expert panel of the commission approves the relaxation of blanket testing for all cattle.

* The commission recommends easing blanket-testing requirements after public hearings.

* The government seeks the commission’s advice on resuming beef imports.

* The government approves the resumption of beef imports following discussions with the expert panel and the commission.

In short, beef imports from the U.S. are unlikely to resume before summer.

The FSC meets every three weeks. If its decision is not based on scientific information, public trust in food safety will be lost. Naturally the commission should conduct discussions in a manner acceptable to the public.

Nevertheless, the U.S. may find it incomprehensible that, six months after the summit agreement, there has been no progress in the process for resuming beef imports.

I believe the commission should hold more discussions and expedite the process. To start with, the government should have set a deadline in seeking the commission’s advice.

Beef trade is an important diplomatic issue affecting food safety in Japan and the Japan-U.S. alliance. The issue looms amid concerns that bilateral friction over auto trade could be rekindled, since Japanese-built vehicles now command more than a 30 percent share of the U.S. auto market. Furthermore, reorganization of U.S. military bases in Japan has reached a difficult stage.

The FSC’s decision will directly affect Japan-U.S. relations. If Koizumi resorts to his favorite tactic of delegating authority to his advisers, he will be shunning his political responsibility.

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