President Clinton yesterday announced an "all-out effort" to persuade Congress to grant China permanent access to the U.S. market, a key step in White House efforts to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
"We stand to gain" when China enters the WTO, the Geneva-based body that polices world trade, Clinton told reporters at the White House, noting that China will give U.S. companies new access to its huge market. The congressional vote he is seeking is necessary to "lock in our benefits," he said.
The White House is convening a special Cabinet committee to work with business and other groups in what promises to be one of the biggest lobbying battles of 2000. A coalition of labor, human rights and other activists--emboldened by their success in disrupting the WTO meeting in Seattle late last year--promise to oppose the deal.
Though no schedule exists yet for the vote, Clinton said yesterday that he wanted it to be at "the earliest possible time."
Cabinet members met yesterday to discuss the campaign. "We went through how we see this developing, what we've all heard as we've done outreach to different constituencies," Commerce Secretary William M. Daley said in an interview. Also at the meeting were Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), an abiding critic of China, said the United States should not grant normal trade status, in view of China's persecution of religious groups and lack of political freedom. "There are more gulags that are operating in China today than there were when Solz wrote the book," he said in an interview, referring to the labor-camp expose "Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
"I think they're going to have a very difficult time getting this through Congress now," Wolf said. "A lot of members feel very uneasy about it. This is an election year."
In November, Barshefsky negotiated a deal in Beijing under which China would grant new access to its markets to U.S. companies in return for U.S. support for its entry into the WTO.
Trade experts say that under WTO practices, China would be allowed to cancel that access for U.S. companies if Congress does not permanently grant China a legal status known as "normal trading relations." That means China would get the same tariff reductions and market access that other U.S. trading partners get.
Up to now, Congress has granted that status to China only on a year-to-year basis, due to objections to such things as its suppression of human rights and state control of its economy. China is eager to avoid that annual ritual because it places in question its long-term access to a crucial foreign market for its goods.
Without a "yes" vote for permanent relations, other countries' companies would enjoy new market access while "all of the industries in this country will be standing on the sidelines picking wax out of their ears," Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.
The question of whether year-by-year extensions would comply with WTO rules has never been litigated before a WTO disputes panel, said John H. Jackson, a trade law expert at Georgetown University Law Center. He believes that any such litigation would uphold the notion that normal trading relations must be permanent.
Clinton yesterday praised the November deal. "Our products will gain better access to China's market in every sector from agriculture to telecommunications to automobiles," he told reporters at the White House.
Clinton said that on human rights and weapons proliferation, "we'll continue to press our views and protect our interests" with China.
CAPTION: President Clinton announces that he is naming Commerce Secretary William Daley, right, and Steve Ricchetti, deputy White House chief of staff, to lead the effort to get Congress to approve the U.S. trade deal with China.