Byline: Jim Ostroff

WASHINGTON — Chinese leaders have pledged to honor commitments they made to open China’s import markets in order to join the World Trade Organization, the U.S.’s top trade envoy said Thursday in Beijing.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said that Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji gave her “emphatic, absolutely emphatic” assurances that China is not backtracking on agreements it made to open its markets and reform trade and intellectual property protection in its bid for WTO membership.
Reports had circulated among trade circles for a week that Chinese trade officials were balking at some of these commitments during meetings in Geneva with WTO bureaucrats, who are working to write China’s formal membership bid protocol. The protocol, in which an applicant nation states how it will live up to WTO rules, is submitted to member countries for approval.
Under the WTO’s procedures, countries seek to develop a “consensus” on such membership applications before it’s submitted for a formal vote, or else the vote is delayed. By the time a membership bid is voted upon, it’s a foregone conclusion that the countries will approve it. In the interim, there can be heated debate as countries wrangle about such things as, in this case, whether import duty cuts pledged by China are sufficient to eliminate tariff barriers.
Sources said that Chinese negotiators in Geneva also were pushing for Taiwan to be admitted to the WTO as a customs territory of China, rather than a separate nation. But, China apparently dropped this demand, sources said.
Apparently, issues raised by China’s envoys were considered serious enough by the Clinton administration to stall China’s WTO bid in its tracks. Barshefsky flew to Beijing Tuesday night, immediately after President Clinton signed legislation giving China the same U.S. trade access as virtually all other nations.
Earlier this year, the U.S. and China agreed to conditions for China’s WTO admission, including China’s guarantee that barriers on apparel and textile imports would be dropped. The new law ended the annual congressional review needed to extend normal trade relations to China for another year — an often contentious battle that disrupted retail sourcing programs.
Barshefsky, seeking to finesse the issue of China’s supposed backtracking, said she flew to Beijing to help Chinese trade negotiators prepare for the next round of talks in Geneva on its admission bid. The trade official said she believes China could be admitted as the 135th WTO-member nation by yearend. China believes it can meet this deadline, a Chinese trade ministry official said.
The next round of talks about China’s WTO bid are slated to be held in Geneva in about two weeks. Should remaining issues be resolved at that time, the formal member-nation vote on admitting China to the group could come by early December.

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