Already a center of world diplomacy and culture, Washington is emerging as an international business center, setting off a new round of competition among Washington real estate developers.

The builders who have put up shopping malls, condominiums and office complexes to meet the region's needs have decided that what Washington could use next is a world trade center.

No less than four world trade centers are being planned by rival developers.

There's World Trade Center Washington, which, despite its name, will be built in Prince George's County just below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge; the U.S. International Cultural and Trade Center planned for southwest Washington near L'Enfant Plaza; a nearby building that calls itself "The World Trade Center," and the Far East Trade Center planned for Chinatown.

"We're on the crest of a wave of an explosion in international trade," said James H. Burch, chairman of World Trade Center Washington. "International trade is going to be of monumental proportions in the coming decade, and Washington is going to see a tremendous amount of action."

Washington will not be unique in housing international centers. They are sprouting up all over.

Baltimore is already the home of a world trade center -- a pentagonal building that towers over the city's Inner Harbor.

The World Trade Center Association in New York has 33 member world trade centers and 133 member organizations in 46 countries, in such cities as Hong Kong, Bombay, Singapore, Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Moscow.

About 45 more centers are under construction or are being planned in places as diverse as Amsterdam, Bogota, Cairo, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei.

A relatively new phenomenon, world trade centers try to lure a worldwide clientele by offering a range of international business services consolidated in a central area. Typically, these services include banking facilities, libraries and computer centers with data on potential foreign markets, import-export counseling, international communications facilities, language classes and seminars.

The Washington developers, who plan to invest more than $1 billion in the centers, hope to attract international business executives, consultants, lawyers and trade missions because of the new centers' proximity to international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the presence of the federal government.

The World Trade Center Washington will be part of "Bay of the Americas," the privately funded Prince George's County waterfront development that is planned for the Potomac shore just below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The entire Bay of the Americas project could cost about $700 million, depending on which design is adopted, its developers say.

"Our center will be the focal point for international travelers coming into town," Burch said.

Construction of the center may begin in 1 1/2 to two years, with occupancy scheduled for mid-1986, according to its planners. When completed, the approximately 1.2 million-square-foot center, located on Smoot Bay near Oxon Hill, will tower over a 442-acre man-made cove and complex of town-house villas, about 1,000 luxury homes and 2 million square feet of office and exhibition space, according to its planners.

A retreat-like conference center, a 1,000-slip marina, a yacht club, three hotels, a pedestrian walkway covering 1 1/4 miles of Potomac River waterfront and 275 acres of secluded park and recreational land also will be part of the Bay of Americas project.

"It will be a beehive that attracts those involved in international trade and culture," said Michael J. Runde, executive director of the World Trade Center Washington.

Pavilions will be built out over the water, with shops and restaurants from countries around the world as well as hotels, Burch added.

The center will be designed by Philip Johnson, the world-acclaimed architect who designed the headquarters for AT&T in New York, Pennzoil Co. in Houston and Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries Inc.. Johnson also is planning the renovation of New York's Times Square. He has been involved in another Washington-area project -- the three Tycon Towers at Tysons Corner.

The center's developers have signed an agreement with George Washington University to provide joint seminars and conferences on international trade.

The center is the only one planned for the area that has applied for accreditation from the World Trade Center Association, which it has received.

The nonprofit association, founded in New Orleans in 1968, promotes international business relationships and encourages participation in world trade by developing nations.

Member trade centers around the globe offer training for business people in currency fluctuations, foreign investment and international taxation of corporate and individual earnings.

The backing of the trade centers association will attract a worldwide network of international businesses to the entire Bay of Americas project, its owners say. "It's the most viable network of international trade in the world," Burch said.

Burch said that he hopes to get the World Trade Center Washington declared a foreign trade zone or a sub-zone of an existing 77-acre foreign trade zone in Prince George's County so that companies can store goods there without paying customs duties until the goods are sold.

A foreign trade zone is legally outside the reach of the U.S. Customs Service, and duties don't have to be paid on goods brought into the zone unless they eventually are taken out into U.S. territory.

"Foreign products could be displayed at a conference, seminar or trade show at our site and then taken out of the country or sold to another country without any import taxes," Burch said.

Business advantages for locating in such a zone include avoiding state inventory taxes, transforming imported goods that otherwise would be subject to quotas into products that aren't subject to limitations, and importing goods in excess of quota restrictions and storing them until the next quota period.

Goods that don't sell well in the U.S. market also can be re-exported without payment of duties, and damaged or defective materials bound for the United States can be rejected before duties are paid.

In addition, a special taxing district has been created by Prince George's County that will give the Bay of Americas project certain tax incentives.

With 100 members so far, the World Trade Center Washington could give a major boost to the Prince George's County economy, according to county officials.

"The creation of a large number of jobs and new associated business facilities which result from serving the trade center's needs provide a very substantial tax base from which the entire surrounding jurisdictions would benefit," said H. Joseph Edwards, president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.

But opposition to the project has surfaced from Friends of Oxon Hill, a citizens group that opposes construction and is concerned about traffic congestion, center planners said.

The planners are coordinating their efforts with the World Trade Center Baltimore, another area facility that began operating in 1977 and is affiliated with the trade center association. Maryland's state government, rather than business executives, owns the center. I. M. Pei, the well-known architect, was one of the designers of the 30-story, five-sided building overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor. It houses 61 companies involved in international commerce.

Among the Baltimore center's clients are international freight forwarders, customs house brokers, steamship lines and agents, a port services company, an international travel agency, international lawyers, international insurance companies, an international public library and an institute that puts on international seminars.

The World Trade Center Baltimore, which cost $22 million to build, also has international banking facilities, small shops, a cafe and an observation deck.

The District's second world trade center is an approximately $275 million U.S. International Cultural and Trade Center, which was developed and proposed by a joint task force of local and federal officials.

It will be located on the southwest waterfront adjacent to L'Enfant Plaza. Construction is expected to begin in 1985.

Supporters hope the government project will bring "life and vitality" to the Southwest waterfront. It will be built on 11 acres of federally owned land along Maine Avenue and is expected to open in 1988.

If approved by Congress, the 1.6 million-square-foot project would include a "World Exposition Center" for cultural exhibits by foreign nations, states and international organizations located in Washington. No restaurants, hotels or shops are planned yet for the project.

The cultural center also will house a theater, offer student foreign exchange programs, multilingual translation services and language laboratories. An international bazaar area about the size of Baltimore's Harborplace where foreign countries could display their arts and crafts, furnishings and food will be set up. The trade section of the complex will have a meeting place for business executives and government officials, a one-stop center for passports and visas and a display area for export and import items.

Several Southwest neighborhood associations are concerned that the project might be just another "sterile federal enclave" and that it might jeopardize students at nearby Jefferson Junior High School and result in more traffic in the area and parking problems, said Michael F. Brimmer, deputy director of the Federal City Council.

L'Enfant Plaza officials are concerned that the center might block the plaza's waterfront view and compete with its business, he added.

"We're working with the concerned groups in the design concept to preserve Jefferson School, route traffic away from the residential areas and make sure the height of the center is lower than L'Enfant Plaza," Brimmer said.

Preliminary plans for the international center have been approved by the National Capital Planning Commission. Plans call for development through a public corporation created by Congress. The corporation would be authorized to borrow the necessary funds, which would be repaid over 25 to 30 years through leases to federal agencies, foreign governments and international organizations.

The Federal City Council estimated that 3,000 permanent new jobs will be created at the center.

The Bay of America developers insist that they are not competing with the International Cultural and Trade Center. "We're not competing -- we're coordinating activities," Burch of the Bay of the Americas project said. "We want to make sure they don't have private offices, and we won't house government agencies."

But both project directors are competitively promoting their locations.

"Our strategic site is 10 minutes from the U.S. Capitol and will be one of the highest sites around overlooking the city and the monuments," said Burch. "An average of 130,000 cars pass the site daily."

But Brimmer of the Federal City Council doesn't buy it. "They're only competitive with us to the extent that people are attracted to Prince George's County near the Beltway," he said. "We have a focused location, midway between the White House and the Capitol, three blocks off the Mall, next to an interstate freeway and within two blocks of the Metro."

Brimmer says the government project also will differ from the Bay of Americas one because its office space will house government organizations, not private-sector tenants. "Bay of Americas is more of a residential, hotel project," Brimmer added.

The Bay of Americas developers say, however, that their center will house importers and exporters, international product and food displays, freight forwarders and brokers, international banks, airlines and shipping companies, travel agents and representatives of foreign governments interested in expanding markets for their goods and tourism.

A third developer, the Hadid Investment Group Inc., also is promoting the "unparalleled location" of its $120 million, nine-story, red-brick building going up on Virginia Avenue. The 206,000-square-foot project is billed in ads as "The World Trade Center."

But, so far, Hadid's project only has leased space to one client -- the Legal Services Corp. -- and has no internationally oriented services, said a source involved in the project.

"It's just a real estate gimmick," said Runde of the Bay of Americas project. "The project's developer just decided to call the building a world trade center. But it's the best example of what a trade center is not.

"There are no international services planned," Runde added. "They're ignoring the fact that a world trade center is not just a building. "The Hadid project is a slap in the face to anyone really interested in international trade."

Some of those working with Hadid's project acknowledge that "The World Trade Center" is nothing but office space.

"It's definitely an office building. We're not really tied into world trade, and there are no groups in there yet that are specifically world-trade oriented,"said John Marvin Jones of Smithy Braedon Co., a real estate firm involved in the project. "It's just the name of the building."

Hadid was negotiating with the Bay of the Americas developers at one time to invest in their project, but the joint venture didn't pan out, said one of the Bay of the Americas founders.

"Calling a building a world trade center is a marketing device to attract tenants all seeking to capitalize on Washington's emerging image as an international center," said Brimmer of the Federal City Council.

A coalition of Chinese Americans and local developers is planning a $150 million ornate Far East Trade Center to be located in the southeast corner of 7th and H streets Northwest. Stretching the full length of the 7th Street block, the building will have pagoda-style sunscreens attached to a dark mirror-glass facade.

Although the developers, North Gallery Place Associates, don't plan to break ground for the center until late next year, more than 40 percent of the center's space has been leased, said Alfred H. Liu, architect of the center and president of Chinatown Development Corp.

"It will be one of the most colorful, exciting, dynamic projects in Washington," he said.

The Chinese project is expected to include more than 200,000 square feet of office space and a 527-room Far Eastern hotel with a health club and penthouse restaurant/club. It also will house 175,000 square feet of oriental shops and restaurants, several floors of exhibit space for Asian products, a live theater for visiting performances, water gardens and three movie theaters.

"This will be the largest Asian-designed, Asian mixed-use center in the Western Hemisphere," said Liu. "It will be a pagoda floating in the clouds."