Working in secret as a Nov. 30 deadline approaches, the White House is pressing China for a deal that would bring that country into the World Trade Organization and commit it to respecting the official rules of global commerce.
Officials said the U.S. side is close to putting a formal written proposal before the Chinese government, in hopes of forcing a positive response in stalled discussions. The two sides came within an inch of agreeing in April but broke off after President Clinton rejected a Chinese offer.
Clinton spoke on the phone with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin last month about reaching a deal, officials said, but to date China has offered only general support for the idea of reaching an agreement.
With relations between the two countries strained on a variety of matters including Taiwan, human rights and alleged theft of nuclear secrets, the White House is anxious to reach an accord on a divisive issue that seems solvable, trade.
The deadline facing the administration is the opening day of a giant meeting of the 130-plus members of the WTO in Seattle. The White House wants a deal by then, which would make China a full partner at the start of new negotiations between the world's trading partners to further loosen the rules of commerce.
The United States hopes to base an accord on the broad framework of the package China offered in April, but with some modifications. One line of speculation has it that the U.S. side might agree to give up something the Chinese offered in April, permission for foreign investors to own up to 51 percent of telecommunications service companies in China.
Still, it is unclear what changes to the April plan would be necessary to get China to agree. After the collapse of the April negotiations, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji drew criticism from conservatives in China for offering too much. NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade several weeks later further poisoned the atmosphere.
Based on the contacts up to now, the Chinese side has said it is the United States that must make concessions if there is to be a deal. "The Chinese leadership seems united about the fact that the United States is demanding too much," said one Chinese analyst in China.
China now rivals Japan in generating U.S. trade deficits; U.S. officials feel that getting the country into the Geneva-based WTO, which oversees international trade and rules on disputes between trading partners, would help put ties on a more even footing.
For its part, China wants the stature of being a fully recognized member of the world trading community. It also wants a say in the talks that will begin in Seattle, stage one of global negotiations that could go on for years and bring new changes in the rules of trade.
To enter the WTO, it must offer a package of market-opening steps that is sweet enough to get the United States, the WTO's largest member, to endorse its entry. Under WTO rules, all other member countries would automatically get the same breaks.
In April, Zhu came to Washington offering a broad package that included cutting tariffs on U.S. farm products, giving new freedom to foreign insurance companies to operate and letting foreign investors own up to 51 percent of telecommunications services companies in China.
Coming at a time of Republican attacks on the White House over alleged theft of nuclear secrets by China, the deal was rejected by Clinton, after a debate within his administration, out of fear it would not be acceptable to Congress. Many officials there now regret letting the opportunity pass.
In recent weeks, China has ended the negotiations blackout that followed the Belgrade bombing and agreed to reopen the WTO issue. But it has baffled the U.S. side by making repeated statements of support for a deal while doing little in the way of follow-up.
A Chinese team came to Washington for one day of talks in late September, but other than that the sides appear not to have sat down face to face to discuss specifics.
A further complication is that for China and the United States to work together under the WTO framework, Congress must vote to give China permanent "normal trading relations." That means that China would receive the most favorable trading terms that the United States grants to other countries.
If China entered the WTO based on an agreement with the White House, and Congress then refused to grant the "NTR" status, China could legally deny all of its market access concessions to the United States. Other countries would continue to get them, however.
Cal Cohen of the Emergency Committee on American Trade, a group that promotes trade with China, said congressional backing was likely. "I still can say the support is broad and deep for a comprehensive deal that provides market access for . . . American business and agriculture," he said. ". . . I hope the Chinese recognize that."
Many Chinese analysts say congressional approval is not a big issue for them. If Congress doesn't grant the NTR status, other countries will enjoy greater access to the Chinese market while the United States will be frozen out. So Washington will end up being pressured on that score, they say, not China.
John Pomfret of the Washington Post Foreign Service contributed to this report from Beijing. Staff writer Robert G. Kaiser contributed from Washington.