The top trade negotiators for the United States and Japan sat side by side in Yankee Stadium Friday night, taking in the Yankees' victory over the California Angels in a 10-inning cliff-hanger.
The next day, U.S. Special Trade Representative Reubin Askew and his Japanese counterpart Saburo Okita returned to their own cliffhanger -- the stubborn negotiations over the purchase of sophisticated U.S. telecommunications equipment by Nippon Telephone & Telegraph Co., the government-backed communications monopoly.
Over the weekend, Okita reportedly outlined a "pragmatic" compromise that would open the door a little wider to the $3 billion in annual purchases by NTT, giving U.S. and other foreign suppliers limited opportunities to compete against Japanese manufacturers under competitive-bidding rules.
While sales of sophisticated computer and telecommunications equipment still would be foreclosed from competitive bidding, NTT would be willing to negotiate with American firms, product by product, under the new proposal, sources said.
Askew didn't move from the official U.S. position that all of NTT's purchasing should be opened to competitive bidding, under the terms of the multilateral trade agreement reached two years ago in Geneva, officials said.
Although overshadowed by the Japanese auto import issue, the trade dispute over telecommunications sales is critical and may be even more important to the long-range, U.S.-Japan relationship, Askew says.
The United States has warned Japan that unless American firms are given the right to compete for the full range of purchases by NTT, Japanese firms will be barred from bidding on $17 million in U.S. government contracts.
NTT, which now buys almost exclusively from a small "family" of Japanese suppliers, until recently has refused to consider purchasing sophisticated telecommunications equipment from U.S. or other foreign sources, citing concerns about quality.
Whether the United States can accept the new offer is not clear.
Negotiations will resume next month, with time running out. The weekend meetings, however, kept alive the hope that an agreement eventually will be reached, U.S. sources said.