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U.S. and Japan to end long maritime dispute

Like the "bad cop" in a stylized police drama, the obscure Federal Maritime Commission seems to have broken the deadlock in a long festering U.S.-Japan trade dispute by threatening Tokyo with surprisingly severe sanctions.

About 24 hours after the commission voted to bar most Japanese cargo ships from U.S. ports, American and Japanese negotiators reported Friday they had reached an agreement that would assure improved access to Japanese ports for U.S. merchant ships.Although some details remained to be thrashed out, it appeared that the crisis brought on by the maritime panel's order pushed negotiators toward compromises they had refused to make previously in a dispute that has dragged on for years.

The commission, an independent agency run by a five-member board appointed by the president, was an ideal agency to force the issue. Unlike the State Department and the Transportation Department, which were handling the talks, the commission has no responsibility for overall U.S.-Japan relations, so it could focus narrowly on the port dispute.

And, in the nuanced world of diplomacy, the commission's legal independence made all the difference because U.S. negotiators could claim that they had nothing to do with issuing the order - and the Japanese could respond without appearing to surrender to an ultimatum.

Last April the commission threatened to fine container ships owned by Japan's three largest shipping companies $100,000 for each visit to the United States unless the Japanese government relaxed port restrictions that have long hampered U.S. shipping. When Tokyo did not budge, the commission imposed the fines effective Sept. 1.

When Japanese companies refused to pay about $4 million in accumulated fines due this week, the commission voted Thursday to bar their container ships from U.S. ports and seize those already here.

Although U.S. officials were careful not to upset the diplomatic assertion that the commission acted on its own, they clearly were encouraged by the outcome. "The purpose of imposing the fines was not just to impose fines but to encourage action to correct the port practices," one administration official said Friday. "If you get the kind of results you are looking for, fines are not necessary."

And business leaders were enthusiastic.

"This is an issue we have been raising with the Japanese since the early 1980s," said Willard Workman, vice president for international issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The Japanese government has procrastinated as only the Japanese can do for well over 15 years to fix the problem. It is not something that dropped out of the sky yesterday. The problem with the ports is one of horrendous red tape."

Workman said the commission "exercised the authority it clearly had" in precipitating the crisis.

The commission, which congressional opponents tried unsuccessfully to abolish two years ago, was established in 1961 to regulate U.S. merchant shipping. It is authorized to investigate discriminatory, unfair or unreasonable rates and practices of shipping companies and port operators affecting U.S. ocean commerce. The commission has substantial authority to impose sanctions to enforce its rulings.