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China: Accession To WTO May Be Delayed

A year ago, it appeared that China would have no trouble becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the end of 2000. It already had agreed to conditions -- demanded by Western nations -- including further opening its markets to foreign companies. But now it appears that China's accession to the WTO may be delayed. And Beijing is complaining that the U.S. and the European Union are making unreasonable demands.

Washington, 11 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has signed a law giving China the same trade status with America that is enjoyed by the world's leading market economies.

A year ago, it was widely believed that the enactment of the U.S. trade law -- which Clinton signed on Tuesday -- would virtually ensure China's quick entry into the World Trade Organization, or WTO. And the Beijing government has set a goal to accede to the group by the end of this year.

But problems have arisen that probably will delay China's admission by six months or even longer.

The U.S. and the Europe Union (EU) -- perhaps the most demanding members of the WTO -- already have signed agreements accepting Chinese trade reforms that were conditions for entry into the group. But now, China complains, Europe and the U.S. are unfairly demanding further concessions, and are seeking stricter conditions for China's accession than they have for other countries.

Western trade officials counter that the WTO administers a treaty signed by nations with market economies -- and that China has yet to privatize much of its industry. Therefore, they argue, the organization must set up special conditions for China's entry.

Principally, the U.S. and the EU want China to enact new laws protecting trademarks and copyrights. They also want Beijing to strengthen its legal system to ensure that foreign companies doing business in China are treated fairly in the courts.

It was politically important for Clinton to preside over new U.S. trade relations with China. And it is equally important for him that China becomes a member of the WTO during his presidential term, which ends on January 20. So Clinton has directed his trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, to meet soon with China's prime minister, Zhu Rongji, to add impetus to the negotiations.

But many observers say it is unlikely that China will be accepted into the WTO by the end of the year. One is Claude Barfield, who served as a consultant to the office of the U.S. trade representative under President Ronald Reagan. He told RFE/RL that there is virtually no time for China to achieve its goal of gaining entry to the WTO by the end of the year.

"Now that both sides have staked out their positions on so many issues, it's just going to take time to work through them."

This creates problems, Barfield says, because a new U.S. president will be inaugurated in three months.

Barfield says that if the next president is the current vice president -- Al Gore -- China could face further impediments to WTO entry. Gore has a record of environmental activism, and is heavily supported by America's trade unions. Therefore he may seek further environmental and labor guarantees from China in exchange for WTO accession.

Gore's rival for the U.S. presidency -- George W. Bush, the governor of the state of Texas -- is generally viewed as less likely to raise such issues with China. But at the same time, less is known of Bush on world trade issues. As a result, Barfield says, the Chinese government probably would prefer to negotiate with Clinton during his last few months in office.

Opponents of China's entry into the WTO say China does not deserve accession. They accuse Beijing of human rights abuses, disregard for the environment -- and generally a totalitarian approach to governance. Supporters of China's entry into the WTO counter that requiring China to trade under strict rules eventually will instill in China a sense of the rule of law that is the basis of democratic reform.

Barfield says this argument has merit.

"It's certain that the rule of law is inconvenient, but they will learn to live with it."

Now it appears not a matter of whether China will have an opportunity to trade under these rules, but when.