In addition to the trade imbalance, Portman will be challenged by many other simmering disputes: Brazilian complaints against U.S. cotton subsidies ... developing nation demands that farm subsidies be eliminated ... and, of course, the continuing disagreements over beef trade with Canada and Japan.
There has been gradual, almost imperceptible, progress in trade talks with Tokyo. But a timeline for the resumption of U.S. beef exports to Japan remains elusive. Here's the latest.
U.S. Senators and Representatives, as well as their constituent cattle producers and processors, are rapidly approaching the end of their collective rope. The date for resumption of trade has been in a state of flux since early last year. First it was to be last fall, then early in 2005, followed by another late fall 2005 date, and now it appears it will be sometime in 2006. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is estimating losses to the beef industry are somewhere between 3.1 billion and 3.4 billion dollars.
Annoyed with the waiting game, US Senators held a meeting this week with Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato to get some kind of commitment. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and Montana Democrat Max Baucus met with Ambassador Kato behind closed doors
Charles Grassley, (R) Iowa: "I feel that the stretching out of the time that is taking that it leaves questions in our mind about whether or not sound science for meat not going to the Japanese consumers or whether it might be protectionism of the beef industry in Japan."
Baucus, who has gone on record about his impatience with Japanese trade officials, was more direct.
Senator Max Baucus, (D)Montana: "We're not suggesting that, but it is important to know, that, um, we want this resolved, cause it has to be resolved quickly. And if it's not resolved there will be consequences.".
It is clear that both sides want to resolve the issue and neither wants it to appear that political pressure was the reason the border finally opened. Even so, Kato was unable to give the two senior Senators any kind of timetable.
The Japanese press is rampant with rumors about the negative effect of pressure brought by U.S. government officials and U.S. cattle producer groups. Closer to home, there are reports that the Rancher's Cattlemen Action Legal Fund's efforts to keep the Canadian border closed may have a negative effect on resolution of the Japanese stalemate. R-CALF officials remain perplexed at how their work to protect US consumers and cattle producers should have any effect on Japanese negotiations.
For their part, the Japanese are being careful to make any decision appear motivated only by the safety of the food supply. The Japanese Food Safety Commission, an independent panel tasked with making some kind of recommendation to the Japanese government, is still requesting information from the US. All indications are that no conclusion will be forthcoming anytime soon.
Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi has stated that he cannot say when imports will resume but he wants to accelerate the effort and not hurt the trusting relationship that currently exists between the United States and Japan. It is expected that Japanese government officials will take what they consider an appropriate length of time to avoid being accused of conducting a sloppy investigation.
In a survey by the Japanese broadcasting agency NHK, 75 percent of those responding opposed opening the border without the Japanese conducting the inspection. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Japan this weekend and is expected to ask the Prime Minister if he can provide a timetable for opening the border. All sources indicate he will be unable to comply.