Barshefsky in new WTO mission
Formal negotiations on a Sino-US trade deal vital to China's entry to the World Trade Organisation this month are expected to restart in Beijing imminently.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed early this morning (Hong Kong time) that US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky would visit China for two days 'to see if we can reach an agreement with the Chinese on a viable basis for [their] accession into WTO'.
Diplomatic sources said she would fly to Beijing today.
It is understood she will meet her mainland counterpart, Foreign Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng, in what is widely seen as the last opportunity for progress before the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle this month.
It was not immediately clear if technical-level officials will accompany her.
'It is a very positive sign indeed . . . no deal can happen without the trade ministers' meeting,' one prominent member of the US-China business lobby said. 'It is a very strong sign that a deal could be close.' It is understood President Jiang Zemin has taken up US pleas for flexibility and told the White House that Beijing wants to break an apparent impasse since the last round of talks in Washington went nowhere in late September.
Then Ms Barshefsky and Mr Shi met for just two hours, with both sides sticking to firm positions and showing little mood for compromise.
The US wants to start talking at least at the point of concessions unsuccessfully offered by Premier Zhu Rongji on a US mission in April.
Beijing has made a string of pleas since for a deal that shows far more understanding of the difficulties China faces. It wants a more relaxed regime of tariff reductions and less pressure from the US on anti-dumping legislation.
The Clinton administration, under both business and political pressure for as strong a deal as possible, is seeking the widest possible market openings across the Chinese economy from agriculture to financial services and the car industry.
Despite apparent desperation for a deal from the White House and signs of fresh approaches from President Bill Clinton, Ms Barshefsky has taken a tough public line. Just last week she said any chance for progress was now up to Beijing.
'The Chinese will need to make a basic decision whether they want to move forward or whether they want to remain in something of a holding pattern,' she said.
Ms Barshefsky - who reports directly to Mr Clinton - has always insisted the timing of any deal is not important to the US. She has said the crucial issue is that any pact be 'commercially viable' from the US perspective.