Further signs that the nine-country Common Market is piecing together a broad-based strategy to boost its trade with the People's Republic of China emerged this week with the start of talks for a textiles accord between Peking and the European Economic Community.
An EEC/China textiles accord, which could be finalized next month, appears linked to more general European ambitions to pry open a variety of Chinese industrial markets also eyed by the EEC's two major trade rivals, the U.S. and Japan.
This week's new European initiative puts into fresh focus the heightened diplomatic activity in which the West's big three trade powere are jockeying for pole position in the race to exploit China's sudden normalization of links with the non-Communist world in 1978.
It is a race in which Japan and Europe have a comfortable lead over the U.S., as Robert Strauss, President Carter's special trae representative, conceded earlier this year.
"Japan probably sells Chian six or seven times as much as we do, and Europe probably five or six times as much as we do," said Strauss. He warned, however, that the U.S. is now "in shape to catch up rather soon."
But the Europeans, who signed a trade pact with China last April, aim to push still further ahead and catch up with Japan. EEC officials claim here that they have assurances from Peking that China's "target would consist in progressively increasing trade with the nine EEC countries until it reached a comparable level to that of its trad with Japan."
A textilex accord can be seen as part of this European strategy, say observers here. The Chinese want to boost their sales of textile items like silk, cotton and carpets to European markets.
For their part, the Europeans, while pointing out the political sensitivity of increasing textile imports into a market already near saturation point, may be prepared to react more generously, predict officals here, if they feel that this generosity will be their entry ticket for lucrative exports to China of heavy Ngineering and industrial technology.
"It's important to be first into Chinese markets," says one EEC policy official concerned with planning European export growth. So "maybe it's worthwhile to be more flexible towards Chinese demands on textiles."
Exporters in West Germany, Britain and France, the Eec/'s major industrial power centers, are considered the most likely beneficiaries of such a trade bargain with Peking. According to trade sources here, the Chinese are looking for foreign contractors to build fifteen industrial complexes in a variety of industrial sectors, including petrochemicals, oil refining steel, and non-ferrous metalworking.
Moreover, the vigor of the European drive into China, say trade officials here, is being buttrssed by exceptionally favorable credit terms being granted by some EEC governmets to help their exporters gain a firm foothold in Chinese markets.
European officials privately admit that such export credit terms are often more favorable than those set by an international agreement they have concluded with the U.S. and other Western countries. American government officials, meeting with Europeans in Paris earlier this month, issued a general warning that they would retaliate in kind if this European practice continued.
The Americans could soon be moving to make up the lead held over them by the Europeans in the Chinese race, feel observers here. They note Strauss' recent suggestion of a U.S.-China trade accord and that future American exports to China could be partially financed by credits supplied by the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
But the European sales pitch to the Chinese will likely intensify when Roy Jenkins, president of the EEC's executive commission, visits Peking late February. The Jenkins' trip, called for by the Chinese, will cap a series of visits by leading European officials and businessmen to prospect economic opportunities in the 800-million strong market of the People's Republic.