Japan, China reach agreement on commerce

Pact has implications for Beijing's membership in world trade group

July 10, 1999|By N.Y. TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING -- Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met here yesterday and announced that they had reached a trade agreement that effectively won Japan's endorsement for China to join the World Trade Organization.

The deal, limited in substance to a handful of minor trade issues, carried weighty implications. China is eager to join the group that makes the rules of global commerce, and has courted support from many of its 134 member countries. At the same time, its chess game of negotiations with Washington -- essentially the arbiter of China's efforts to join the WTO -- remains at an impasse.

The agreement announced yesterday is unlikely to have a direct impact on China's negotiations with the United States, which stalled after NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May prompted violent demonstrations here and a diplomatic crisis with Washington.

Yet one potent hint emerged yesterday, sure to attract the attention of U.S. officials scouring China's political landscape for clues over how to break the stalemate. It was the comment, which a senior Japanese official attributed to Zhu, that China would not withdraw the concessions that were offered to the United States when Zhu visited in April.

China's official accounts of the meeting did not confirm the remark, so U.S. negotiators are unlikely to be able to test Zhu's sincerity until they actually sit down again with Chinese counterparts.

But the United States was clearly irked by the Japan-China agreement. In the view of U.S. officials, Japan makes few demands of China -- knowing that whatever concessions the United States wins will also apply to China's other trading partners, Japan included. In other words, Japan can win diplomatic points with China, without losing any trade edge.

"By and large, the Japanese have not contributed sufficiently to the creation of a commercially meaningful agreement," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said in Washington yesterday.

U.S. officials have said that the key to resolving remaining differences is whether Beijing will keep the concessions that Zhu previously had offered, or whether in yesterday's distinctly cooler political atmosphere those concessions will become untenable.

Zhu and his colleagues were surprised and angered when U.S. trade officials publicized the concessions China had made privately in Washington. But they apparently felt doubly betrayed when President Clinton personally vetoed a deal that his own negotiators were almost ready to sign.

After all that, persuading Chinese negotiators not to rescind any of their concessions was going to be a challenge, U.S. officials admitted. After the bombing, efforts to negotiate fell apart entirely.

Yesterday, Zhu kept to the position that Beijing will not resume talks with the United States until it gets a better explanation for the bombing of the embassy. NATO has said it was a mistake in intelligence and planning, an explanation Chinese leaders have rejected.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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