A senior U.S. trade official put a happy face on her visit to Tokyo this week, but even as she left, America sounded the alarm yet again over Japan's bulging current account surplus.
''The tone of the meetings was extremely positive,'' Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, said Thursday as she wound up a three-day trip, her first since being appointed in July to head the U.S. Trade Representative's Office in Japan.''I received assurances that they (Japanese officials) are prepared to work constructively with the USTR on issues on our trade agenda, and we welcome that,'' Cutler said.
U.S. Trade officials have already served notice regarding Japan's yawning trade gap and warned Tokyo against exporting its way out of its economic woes.
They have also accused Japan of stalling on implementing a 1995 pact on better access to its automotive market.
A U.S. Government source based here underlined those concerns again on Thursday, telling Japanese reporters that Tokyo should settle the problem of its rising current account surplus before it turned into a major problem.
The source, who was not identified, also said Japan's surplus could become an issue when Congress reconvenes in the fall, Jiji news agency reported.
Japanese trade officials, however, insist that the trade surplus is not set to balloon to ''absurd'' levels and that Tokyo is fully honoring its part of the automotive deal.
The recent U.S. comments have fanned currency-market concerns that Japan's rising trade surplus could trigger a feud that might boost the yen.
Trade experts say USTR officials are frustrated, in part due to a perception that Japanese trade officials are no longer inclined to cave in to threats of unilateral trade sanctions.
''They (Japanese trade officials) feel they can just say 'get lost' and if the U.S. huffs and puffs and threatens (sanctions), then Japan will just go to the WTO (World Trade Organization),'' one expert said.
''The U.S. Simply doesn't have the leverage it used to.''
But analysts also say key Washington policy-makers, including U.S. Treasury officials, see little profit at present from a high-profile attack on Tokyo's economic policies, given the healthy state of the U.S. economy.
The United States, however, has a laundry list of matters on which it would like action from Tokyo, and U.S. Trade officials want to persuade their Japanese counterparts that such issues are still on Washington's radar screen.
An agreement on procurement of equipment by telecommunications giant
Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT) is set to expire at the end of September, and Cutler told reporters she had asked Japan to extend and improve the pact.
In a meeting with a senior finance official Thursday, Cutler also discussed efforts by the WTO to forge a global pact to open up the financial services market by a mid-December deadline, a U.S. complaint about Japanese liquor taxes, and implementation of a 1996 bilateral pact on insurance.
Tokyo and Washington are also at odds over some economic issues not in the USTR portfolio.