In its 14-year long efforts to the join the multilateral trading system, China now appears to be in the last lap. But precisely how long the lap will be and how much longer the wait will be, no one appears willing to bet.

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 28 July 2000 -- In its 14-year long efforts to the join the multilateral trading system, China now appears to be in the last lap. But precisely how long the lap will be and how much longer the wait will be, no one appears willing to bet.

This seemed to be the assessment after the 11th meeting of the Working Party on the Accession of China, which concluded here Thursday.

The next meeting of the working party is scheduled for mid-September, and as now will be preceded by plurilaterals.

Both the Chinese side, led by Vice Minister Long Yongtu and the Chairman of the Working Party on China’s Accession, Amb. Pierre-Louis Girard of Switzerland, gave a positive spin on progress made so far and seemed hopeful that the remaining obstacles would be overcome. The next meeting of the Working Party is scheduled to be held in the second half of September, to be preceded by a number of plurilateral meetings on a number of specific issues.

A number of intense plurilateral discussions preceded the 11th Working Party meeting as well. They discussed domestic support for agricultural products, Tariff-Rate quota (TRQ) Administration, technical barriers to trade (TBT) and transparency and judicial review.

At a press briefing Thursday afternoon, Ambassador Girard outlined China’s accession as proceeding on three fronts - the draft Protocol, the draft Report of the Working Party and the Protocol Annexes.

With respect to the draft Protocol, he said that discussions had “circumscribed the issues open to a very limited number now.” Describing the progress as having achieved “a good deal of maturity,” the remaining gaps could be closed at the next meeting.

The draft Working Party Report, he said, was bulky but provided the necessary exercise in having a first full reading of the report. This had helped to identify what the difficult sections were and informal or small groups had begun to discus these particular issues. In his summing-up statement, Amb Girard said, “This proved to be more difficult than had been anticipated, due in large measure to the overlapping nature of - and at times inconsistencies between - the texts being developed in the Report and in the Draft Protocol.”

He expected “substantive progress” on these remaining difficult issues at the next meeting. The WTO Secretariat has been asked to prepare a further revision of the Draft Report in advance of the next meeting.

With regard to the Protocol Annexes, Amb Girard talked again about “a degree of maturity” having been achieved but said that while some adjustments were still needed, work on this front was close to the end.  China has been asked to submit additional information for the next session.

On bilateral negotiations, China has now concluded market-access accords with 35 WTO members, out of the 37 members originally expressing an interest in negotiating market-access in goods and services.

While a number of these bilateral accords were submitted to the Secretariat in the course of this session,”it is clear that further efforts are needed to wrap up those bilateral negotiations still outstanding,” Mr Girard said in his summing up.

The head of the Chinese delegation Vice Minister Long had the following to say on the bilaterals. “We have signed bilateral agreements with Ecuador and Guatemala this week and have concluded our negotiations with Costa Rica. Thus we have shortened the long list of our negotiations to only two members, namely, Mexico and Switzerland. I believe that important progress has also been made in our talks with them and hope that through our concerted efforts, all bilateral negotiations will be concluded in the near future.”

For a number of questions posed to him, Mr Long advised journalists to read carefully his statement to the Working Party. In his statement, he has expressed China’s views on three major issues - ‘multilateralization’ of bilateral agreements, China’s developing country status, and the ‘principles’ guiding the Working Party Report.

On the first issue, Mr Long said “China is a country that holds principle and keeps its words. China will strictly abide by earnestly implementing all the commitments made in the bilateral agreements. Any report that China would back-track from its bilateral commitments is totally groundless. As a matter of fact, we have no intention to change even a dot or comma of the bilateral agreements.”

“On the contrary,” he observed, “in accordance with the MFN principle of the WTO, we have agreed to multilateralize all bilateral agreements on the text of the Protocol and Working Party Report in the legal documents. It is fair to say that the Chinese delegation has demonstrated the maximum sincerity in respect of the ‘multilateralization’ and has contributed to the comprehensive progress on this matter which was once considered as the most difficult issue.”

“In the meantime,” Minister Long said, “it is also impossible for China to make additional commitments beyond those in the bilateral agreements on market access through this multilateral negotiating process, given the utmost efforts that China has already made. The bilateral agreements represent a very delicate balance reached through painstaking negotiations. The attempt to break this balance through multilateralization will not be helpful to the smooth implementation of the bilateral agreements.”

On the question of the ‘developing-country status’ of China, Mr Long said the issue had run through the whole negotiation process of China’s resumption of its contracting party status to GATT and its WTO accession. “It is an indisputable fact that China is a developing country. In the WTO, it is up to the members themselves to decide whether they are developing economies or not, requiring no recognition of any other members, let alone to obtain their ‘approval.’ Since China is a developing country, there is no doubt that China is entitled to the provisions on special and differential treatment to developing countries as provided for in the WTO Agreement.

“No member in the WTO has the right to demand that China (should) not invoke such provisions and to reflect their demands in the protocol or the Working Party Report. This is a fundamental principle for China. Of course, China’s legitimate right to invoke these provisions does not mean that China will automatically (take) recourse to them under all circumstances. China has decided not to invoke some of these provisions reserved for developing countries in the light of its own development level and its ability to undertake obligations in some areas.”

As an example, Mr Long cited China having met the WTO requirements with regard to the legislation for IPR protection. In this case, “China certainly will not have to recourse to the transitional provisions for developing countries in the TRIPS Agreement.”

With respect to the principles for drafting Working Party Report, Mr Long said that give the huge amount of workload, “China believes that the Working Party Report should not be an all-inclusive ‘Encyclopedia,’ but should highlight the major points. It should make corresponding explanations and elaboration of the viewpoints of various parties as well as China’s commitments. Moreover, it should not be an unnecessary repetition of the provisions of the WTO Agreement, nor an arbitrary interpretation of these articles.”

As an example, Mr Long cited the issue of granting licenses. “Since the relevant WTO agreements have clearly provided for the procedures granting licences, it would be sufficient for China. What’s more, China ensures the full implementation of these provisions and has submitted to the Secretariat a thick document in this regard to transparency purposes. Therefore, no additional commitments in this regard should be imposed on China.”

“The concepts and standards which are not clearly defined in the WTO Agreement, such as non-market economy, surrogate price comparability and end users, shall be clarified in the Working Party Report in accordance with the principle of transparency, so as to enable all parties concerned to follow,” Mr Long added.

Responding to questions on Taiwan’s representation (in the WTO), Mr Long said, “This is a matter of principle for us. However, we do know how to handle this issue in the WTO. We can find a solution.” He referred in this context to the understanding reached on this issue in 1992.

When pressed by a journalist on the language that China had proposed, Mr Long said, “I don’t want to discuss this issue. The press should not dramatize the situation.”

Asked to specify what problems China was facing in bilaterals with the Swiss, Mr Long said there was ‘slight difficulty’ with respect to “insurance and commodity inspection” but added that these were not insurmountable. “The Swiss should be thinking also about (the situation) after China’s accession,” he added. The next bilateral meeting is scheduled to be held in September.

Earlier, at another press briefing Thursday, Ambassador Rita Hayes of the United States, when asked to comment on China’s accession, said there was a “lot of ebb and flow in any negotiations.” Referring in particular to the territorial representation issues (Taiwan and Macao), she said she “wished it was not there in the Working Party discussions.” Asked whether she would like to see China in the WTO before or after the New Round of Multilateral Negotiations, Amb Hayes merely responded by saying it was important to get China in on the “right meaningful commercial terms.” -SUNS4719

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