U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky left Washington for Beijing yesterday with hopes of reaching a last-minute deal to bring China into the World Trade Organization. Her hastily organized trip followed a phone conversation Saturday between President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin.
Clinton declined yesterday to predict the outcome of the talks, which are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. "We're doing our best," he told reporters at the White House. ". . . Let's wait and--let's not characterize the in-between until we see whether we can produce the product."
There is a sense of urgency in the long-stalled talks because both sides now hope to reach agreement before the start of a meeting of the 130-plus WTO nations late this month in Seattle. Membership would give China a full voice at those talks, in which delegates hope to map out an agenda for a new, three-year round of international negotiations toward further trade liberalization.
Traveling with Barshefsky was a senior delegation from federal agencies, including Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council. U.S. officials said this was a sign that the United States is serious about reaching a deal, not that it expects one can be wrapped up in the two days the group plans to spend in Beijing.
At a time when China's trade surpluses with the United States rival those of Japan, the White House has made securing Chinese membership a major policy objective. U.S. officials say bringing China into the Geneva-based trade organization, where countries can take their complaints about trading practices, would open China's market and commit it to the rules of world trade for the first time.
For its part, China wants the acceptance as a major trading nation that WTO membership would bring. The country would also get a say in future changes to global commerce rules and protection from unilateral sanctions from unhappy trading partners.
To get in, China must make market-opening steps that the United States deems sufficient to win U.S. support for its membership. In recent weeks, however, the U.S. side has been publicly the more enthusiastic for such a deal. It has initiated repeated high-level contacts.
Clinton spoke with Jiang at a regional summit in New Zealand, then telephoned him last month to try to put some steam into the process. A White House official said Clinton and Jiang spoke again Saturday night about the WTO.
A deal could come quickly, if the political will is there, because the two sides were very close to an agreement in April.
In that package, China offered market-opening concessions in agriculture, telecommunications and insurance, among other fields. But Clinton turned down the deal amid questions of whether it would be acceptable to Congress. The NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war put a further chill on relations.
With relations better now, U.S. officials hope that the April accord can be resurrected in most of its elements, and that Congress would be more sympathic than it was in April. China, presumably, will try to reduce the concessions it's willing to offer when it meets with Barshefsky.
"We should not pretend that these issues are finger-snap issues," said Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, a business group that represents companies doing business with China. ". . . I don't expect this to be a love fest until it's over."
Congressional opponents of Chinese membership say that the country won't obey the rules even if it's inside the organization. They also fault it for human rights violations.
Supporters say that the United States would only gain in a deal opening China's market. "This will be a great boost for consumers and workers in the United States and the people of China," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) "And it sends a very important signal to the international community that the United States is once again assuming its role as the global leader."
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also spoke in its favor. "The United States and China will reach an agreement," he said. "China will enter the WTO. The question is when. Clearly the sooner that happens, the better, both for the United States and China."
CAPTION: Charlene Barshefsky heads the delegation.