Again and again in recent weeks, Chinese leaders have assured the United States that they are eager to resume negotiating their country's entry into the World Trade Organization. And again and again, U.S. officials say, the Chinese have provided no meaningful follow-up to make that happen.
With the start of a new round of global trade negotiations in Seattle just a month away, U.S. officials question how serious China really is. While few doubt that it wants a seat at the WTO in the long term, these officials say they are skeptical about its willingness to talk seriously for now.
There is no schedule for formal WTO discussions with China, and outsiders can't see evidence of secret talks going on. At the same time, no one rules out that a telephone could ring today at the U.S. trade representative's office with a message from China that it's ready to talk seriously and soon.
The question on everyone's minds is whether the political will exists in China to go forward, in light of U.S. rejection of a Chinese offer in April and the U.S. Air Force's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war.
With China now rivaling Japan as a source of U.S. trade deficits (in August, it sold $6.9 billion more to the United States than it bought), officials in Washington say it's crucial to bring the huge country into the Geneva-based WTO, which enforces the laws of international commerce.
The April deal would have offered U.S. companies increased access to Chinese markets that are heavily controlled, such as telecommunications, in return for U.S. support for its membership.
Six months later, it's more than a question of U.S. trade negotiators closing a new deal that the White House likes. Congress must also like it. Unless Congress later votes to end the annual review of China's trade relations with the United States and gives it instead the status of "permanent normal trade relations," the United States under WTO rules would lose the concessions that China had pledged.
Congress is unlikely, in any case, to take up the matter until 2000, assuming there is a deal to take up.
A Chinese official said his country is serious about the WTO and moving forward, sending a delegation to talk to the European Union about it. As for the United States, "we have made enough concessions," said Yu Shuning, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy here. "Now it's for the U.S. side to take a political decision."
But from the U.S. point of view, the political climate in China remains foggy. Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who came to Washington in April and negotiated the deal that Clinton later rejected, "ran into a barrage of very heavy criticism when he got back," said Robert A. Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, which represents U.S. companies that do business with China. "What we don't know for sure is whether he's totally had his wings clipped" since then.
In a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in New Zealand last month, President Clinton urged Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to reopen the talks, suggesting that the process begin right there. This past Sunday, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers repeated the message in a meeting with Zhu in China.
Summers and Zhu both expressed hope that the process could be done in time for the convening of the WTO meeting in Seattle at the end of November. Even if the paperwork for China's entry was not complete at that point, its delegates would play an important role in the deliberations, which seek to set an agenda for several years of talks on further liberalizing the rules of world trade.
So far, the only talk at the staff level took place last month. A Chinese delegation at first said it would come to Washington for two days, but then cut it to one. By one administration official's account, the Chinese said that as a precondition the United States must lift all its export restrictions to China. Coming close to scandals over allegations of illegal transfer of missile and nuclear weapons technology to China, that condition fell very flat for the Americans.
CAPTION: Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, in Beijing for talks, walks through Tiananmen Square on Tuesday.