Japan told the Reagan administration yesterday it will limit its annual auto shipments to the United States to 2.3 million units, triggering an immediate White House warning that the move was nothing more than a token gesture and would not substitute for significant moves by Japan to open its markets.
A senior administration official described the action as "no restraint at all on the part of the Japanese" because it is equivalent to the total export capacity of that country's auto makers. The new "limit" amounts to more than a 25 percent increase in Japanese auto exports to the United States, which totaled 1.85 million in the past year.
In Tokyo yesterday, Washington Post correspondent John Burgess reported that a Foreign Ministry official immediately challenged the assertion in Washington that the new export limit represents Japan's full productive capacity. It can go much higher, the official said.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile the strongest congressional attack yet on Japanese trade practices -- a Senate resolution calling for trade retaliation against Japan -- is scheduled for Senate consideration today. The measure passed the Senate Finance Committee yesterday by a unanimous vote.
"We just want to make it plain that we're not regarding this as any step or tradeoff or gift to us for any lack of desire for access to their markets," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
"It's the president's position that export restraints are not an acceptable substitute for market opening. Export restraints are contrary to both the spirit and objective of the agreement" between President Reagan and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to open up markets, Speakes continued.
Japan's move to control its auto exports to the United States will be presented to the Japanese Cabinet for final approval tomorrow, Burgess reported from Tokyo.
The Japanese viewed the step as a concession, he reported, and one senior official said Japan was placed in the difficult position of being forced to set auto export limits to please the United States.
Under intense U.S. pressure, Japan agreed to so-called voluntary restraints that limited its auto exports to the United States in 1981 at a time when the U.S. auto industry was reeling. Reagan decided last month not to ask the Japanese to continue the restraints for a fifth year.
Although Reagan administration sources acknowledged that Japan informally told U.S. officials of the plans to limit auto exports when the restraints expire Sunday, Speakes insisted there have been "no negotiations, no discussions and no formal notification from the Japanese government" on the question. He emphasized U.S. officials had not been consulted on the numbers and had given no hints to Japan on acceptable limits.
Talks currently are under way in four areas agreed to in the January Reagan-Nakasone meeting -- telecommunications; wood and paper products; sophisticated electronics, and pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.
The telecommunications talks face a deadline of Monday, when new Japanese regulations arising from the denationalization of the government telephone monopoly, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, go into effect. These regulations are still being drafted, and U.S. negotiators report resistance from Japan to U.S. demands for elimination of provisions that could discriminate against foreign suppliers.
A senior administration official said Reagan remains convinced that Nakasone, with whom he has developed a close "Ron and Yasu" relationship, has been trying hard to move the trade talks forward. The official blamed the powerful Japanese bureaucracy for the problems.
The hangups on the trade talks, the official continued, are "not for the lack of trying" by Nakasone "and it is certainly not a lack of good faith on his part. I think the president has the utmost respect for the prime minister and his desire" to fullfill his commitment to open Japan's markets.
The Senate Finance Committee, however, felt differently yesterday and rushed its resolution to a floor vote as a sign of congressional concern over the big U.S. trade deficit and Congress' view that Japan floods this country with manufactured goods while refusing to allow entry to competitive American products.
The only opposition to the resolution, offered by Sens. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and David L. Boren (D-Okla.), came from committee members who felt it was not strong enough. And the only reason the non-binding resolution was not offered as a bill that would force presidential action was a technical one. Such a measure would be considered a revenue-raising bill and thus would have to originate in the House of Representatives.
"I've reached the limit of my patience with them the Japanese ," said Finance Committee Chairman Robert Packwood (R-Ore.). "If they are not going to be fair to us, I hate to think that what we are coming to is an eye for an eye, but apparently that is the only language they understand."
Danforth, chairman of the Finance Committee's trade panel, said the resolution asks the president "to take retaliatory action" against Japan in areas such as telecommunications, cars or electronics to offset the estimated $4 billion the Japanese will gain from the lifting of auto restraints.
Speakes declined to say whether President Reagan would veto protectionist bills aimed at Japan.