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Beijing Clears Big WTO Hurdles

China: Talks in Geneva resolve major differences on imports, agriculture. Negotiations with Mexico remain, but entry into trade group appears assured by early 2002.


BEIJING — More than 14 years after it first applied for membership, China has reached agreement with members of the World Trade Organization on the major issues that were delaying its entry into the club of global trading nations, officials here and in Geneva said Wednesday.

Negotiators have "reached full consensus on the main problems remaining in the multilateral negotiations," Foreign Trade Ministry spokeswoman Gao Yan told China's state television in Beijing. "This shows the substantive negotiations on China entering the WTO have already been completed."

"I can say we have achieved a major breakthrough on the important issues of China's accession," Pierre-Louis Girard, chairman of the WTO working party at negotiations, told reporters in Geneva. "I think I can say with confidence that we will be wrapping up this process in the very, very near future."

After a week of intense meetings in the Swiss city, several sticking points, including differences over agricultural subsidies and import restrictions, were resolved. Most of the remaining negotiations also were concluded, and only talks with Mexico and a relatively minor question concerning foreign ownership of insurance branch offices in China remain.

The WTO sets the rules for world trade and adjudicates trade disputes between members. Although the negotiations have been couched in the arcane, oft-confusing language that defines the rules of international commerce, Beijing's entry into the organization--virtually assured by early next year--is viewed as a watershed event for both China and the world community.

For the globe's trading nations, Beijing's accession will mean a powerful new voice participating in WTO debates--a voice that frequently opposes U.S. interests and is deeply suspicious of the West in general.

For China, entry will represent an unprecedented opening of its economy and society to foreign products and influences, from oranges to ideas. That the move comes amid the country's gradual transition from a state-controlled to free-market economy adds up to a major gamble on the part of Beijing's aging Communist leaders.

Membership will also bring new diplomatic tests for China, which has long supported the political agenda of developing countries when they confront the West but which now finds itself competing directly against many of those countries to sell low-cost manufactured goods to the industrialized world.

The week of meetings that ended Wednesday involved representatives from the 63 countries who are negotiating separate agreements with China on the terms of its entry.

A senior WTO official in Geneva who requested anonymity said the remaining unresolved issues were not central to the negotiating process. The differences with Mexico involve how to time the phasing out of more than 1,400 anti-dumping duties on Chinese products.

"The Mexicans have said all along they are not going to hold up an agreement," the official said, adding that China's senior trade negotiator, Long Yongtu, was scheduled to meet Mexico's WTO ambassador Monday and the country's trade minister shortly thereafter.

Differences over insurance reportedly center on the level of ownership foreign companies are allowed for new branches they establish in China.

The successful talks in Geneva followed important agreements last month between China and the world's trading giants, the United States and the European Union. Collectively, the progress reflects a revived sense of urgency to end the marathon diplomatic effort and finally bring Beijing into the 141-member trading group.

China applied for membership in early 1987, when the organization was known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Negotiations with the United States were finalized in November 1999, and President Clinton pushed hard but failed to get the entry process for China completed before he left office last January.

The inauguration of President Bush brought a review of U.S. commitments and a lull in negotiating activity before the talks that were completed last month. Beijing also seemed happy to delay its entry at least temporarily to win additional time to prepare for the impending changes.

The renewed urgency to bring China in was sparked mainly by a desire to ensure Beijing's involvement in efforts to launch a new round of global trading talks at a WTO ministerial-level conference in November in Qatar. There is also a growing unease at the anomaly of one of the world's largest trading nations remaining outside the rule-setting group.

With several months of laborious bureaucratic work still required to finalize and standardize the thousands of tariff schedules and market-opening commitments China has made during the long negotiations, trade officials at the WTO headquarters in Geneva noted that it would still be a push to complete the task by November.

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