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Last week, on the same day Japan finally jostled its way into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks with the U.S. and 10 other nations, petitions signed by more than 80,000 Ford, Chrysler and General Motors workers were sent to U.S. Congress members, urging that Japan be forced to stop rigging its currency to subsidize exports and keep out imports.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

It was 23 years ago that President George H.W. Bush got sick at dinner in Tokyo during a trip where he was wrangling over automotive trade issues with Japan, accompanied by the Detroit auto CEOs of that era — Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, GM’s Bob Stempel and Ford’s Red Poling.

Today, this kind of chronic yammering between the two nations with the 21st Century’s most productive and sophisticated economies just seems so, well, 20th Century — right?

Protectionist. Whiny.

Shouldn’t the U.S. and Japan be the enlightened global leaders, showing emerging economies of the world how to benefit from freer and fairer trade?

Yet here we are, butting heads again, just as we have since the first oil shock of the 1970s ushered in a wave of small-car imports from Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

All this prompted me to ask why smart guys like Bill Ford and Alan Mulally, who led Ford Motor through some very dark days into a robust period of billion-dollar profits, surging sales and rising employment, have been so vocal lately in their criticism of Japan.

■ Related: Pickup sales help to boost Chrysler and Ford sales 11%, GM sales 16% in July

Bill Ford, executive chairman, put it this way when I talked with him Tuesday:

“It’s all about fairness, really,” he said. “I think what this country went through to re-establish our manufacturing base when we almost lost it. … For us now to give that away in a bad trade agreement makes no sense to me.

“I think manufacturing in this country matters a lot,” Ford continued. “It matters to this area. We’re not only just getting back on our feet, but as you know, really hitting on all cylinders. We’re hiring lots of Americans for both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. But a bad trade agreement could jeopardize that, and we will not let that happen.”

Ford executives are rightly proud that their company — without a federal bailout — took steps to right-size itself, boost productivity, rebuild its credit rating and revamp its product lineup to be competitive with the world’s top automakers.

But then, since last November, they’ve watched as their company’s Japanese rivals got a huge boost from a drop of nearly 20% in the value of the Japanese yen compared to the U.S. dollar.

A study last year by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor projected that a weaker Japanese yen, combined with other tariff provisions in a potential TPP trade deal, could result in the loss of 26,500 U.S. jobs. The weaker yen also makes vehicle exports and auto parts from Japan more price-competitive in other markets where they compete with Ford, GM and Chrysler.

While Ford has been the most high-profile of the Detroit Three in jawboning over Japan’s entry into the TPP, GM and Chrysler officials say they are in lock-step with Ford on these issues, and lobbying jointly via the American Automotive Policy Council.

They failed to exclude Japan from a seat at the table on TPP talks, but the Detroit Three have persuaded 230 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office urging that strong language to curb foreign currency manipulation be included in any free trade deal that results from the TPP talks. A similar letter is now circulating among U.S. senators.

These trade issues do get sticky. Detroit’s automakers need to be clear about their concerns but not shrill in their demands, if they want to shed their reputations as whiners and victims of unfair trade.

They’ve shown of late that they can compete ably with their global rivals. They don’t need tariffs or import quotas to protect them, but it’s perfectly appropriate that they insist that all nations abide by the rules on currency and other trade barriers.

Source: http://www.freep.com/article/20130802/COL06/308040020/Tom-Walsh-Bill-Ford-TPP-trade-deal

Tom Walsh: Detroit Automakers have right to object to Japan‘s currency manipulation

August 2nd 2013