TOKYO — An ascendant Asian nation with a powerful domestic auto industry that brims with international ambition. A ballooning trade surplus with the U.S. And a populist American president threatening punishing tariffs in a desperate attempt to level the field.
The scenario seems ripped from the pages of today's headlines. But the country in question is Japan, not China. And the president is Bill Clinton, not Donald Trump.
That showdown harkens back to the early 1990s, when the U.S. was embroiled in another trade war with the bogeymen of the era, Japan and its seemingly invincible carmakers.
Superficial similarities abound with the latest campaign launched by Trump against China. But striking differences suggest Trump's gambit might have some better leverage.
In the tiff with Tokyo, Washington held fewer cards. Japan's market was already largely open. U.S. brands had zero production capacity in the country. The product coming out of Detroit wasn't particularly competitive in cost or quality. The cars were barely tweaked, if at all, to the tastes of Japanese consumers, making them an even tougher sell.
Meanwhile, the Japanese were entrenched in the U.S. and turning what was then the world's biggest auto market into their cash cow.
Clinton's trade war was an extension of largely failed attempts by administrations before him. He stepped it up a notch by making the unprecedented threat to levy a 100 percent tariff against 13 imported Japanese luxury car models.
The ultimatum worked. To a limited degree.
Japanese automakers agreed to increase output at assembly plants in the U.S. Japan agreed to import more U.S. auto parts. Japan would deregulate auto inspections and repair, ostensibly opening the market to more American-made cars. The breakthrough stoked optimism that the conditions were finally right for Detroit to make inroads into the world's No. 2 auto market.
After the deal, General Motors' sales in Japan surged to a high of 47,000 vehicles in 1996.
But the victory was short-lived. These days, Chevrolet and Cadillac, the only GM brands still marketed here, sell fewer than 1,400 vehicles a year. Chrysler sold 213 in 2017. Jeep fares better, moving around 10,000. But prospects are so slim Ford has pulled out altogether.
America's efforts amounted to too little, too late.
Japan eliminated its tariffs on imported cars in the late 1970s. But that didn't help Americans sell vehicles here. They lacked the retail network and connections. The cars weren't suited to Japanese needs. The quality was atrocious, as underscored by the fact America's own buyers seemed to prefer Japanese cars.
The Japanese kept a low profile, acquiescing to U.S. pressure when necessary — and quietly boosted exports every year. When exports became politically problematic, they simply began building cars stateside. By then, at any rate, they already had a loyal and growing following.