A high-level East German trade official said here last week that his country will give priority to U.S. imports to assist in strengthening East Germany's microelectronics, energy, machine and other industries during the coming five years.
But a U.S. Commerce Department official said that stringent constraints on western technological exports to the Soviet Bloc imposed by Cocom -- the group of western countries, plus Japan, that regulates East-West trade on strategic items -- would make increased technological exports from the United States to East Germany "a sensitive area." He said that Cocom rules "could pose a barrier" to such exports.
Western experts here say East Germany is eager to expand its trade with the West to keep apace with new developments in industries such as microchip technology and electronics. Some U.S. businesses, in response, have shown an eagerness to enhance trade ties with East Germany.
Gerhard Beil, second-ranking official in East Germany's Foreign Trade Ministry, said at a meeting of the U.S.-East German trade council in Washington last week that in fulfilling the goals of its 1986-1990 five-year economic plan, East Germany intends to import equipment, machinery, and new technologies and that "we stand ready to give priority in this respect to American firms."
The five-year plan, now being written, will call for an 11 to 12 percent annual increase in foreign trade and the upgrading of seven East German industries, including coal gasification, mechanical engineering and microelectronics, Beil said.
Western economists note that East Germany's signal that it wants an increase in U.S. imports comes at a time of increased pressure on it by its own officials and others in the Soviet Bloc to maintain its status as the strongest economic power in the bloc.
With an average annual growth rate in the last four years of 4.3 percent, the highest in Eastern Europe, East Germany has widened the technological gap between it and all other Warsaw Pact countries, including the Soviet Union. It has become Eastern Europe's key supplier of machine tools, electronic equipment and other substitutes for sophisticated western technology.
In order to sustain that role, Jan Vanous of the Washington-based think tank PlanEcon Inc. said, East Germany will have to orient its imports and exports gradually more to the West. Vanous, an expert on Eastern European economies, said he thinks that the reorientation will be concentrated chiefly on West Germany, already East Germany's key trade partner in the West, but also on Western Europe, Japan and the United States.
Direct U.S. exports to East Germany fell from $477.4 million in 1980 to $135.8 million last year, and have continued to decline, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. U.S exports to East Germany amount largely to nontechnological goods such as grain.
However, exports to East Germany from subsidiaries of U.S. companies in Europe and elsewhere have increased in recent years, a Commerce Department official said. He attributed the European subsidiaries' better trade links to East Germany to more convenient transport routes and to the fact that some of the licensing requirements from the originating European countries are "slightly less stringent."
Noting that 3M recently has joined a few other U.S. companies in opening offices in East Germany, Beil said other American firms would be welcome. "We expect the U.S. to show amicability in the case of East German firms wanting to open up in the U.S.," he said.
East Germany's exports to the United States are on a sharp upswing, due chiefly to large purchases of competitively priced steel in the past 1 1/2 years, a Commerce Department official said. The exports rose from $62.6 million in 1983 to $167.4 million in 1984.
Jerome Ottmar, chairman of the U.S.-East German trade council, said in a speech to the councilthat he would work to eliminate "some of the political barriers to expanded trade" between the United States and East Germany. The trade council is made up of American and East German companies dedicated to improving trade between the two countries.
Recently a consortium of western banks, including seven from the United States, floated a $500 million credit to East Germany, signifying western confidence in the East German economy.