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China promises to slash tariffs 30% Move seen as bid to join World Trade Organization


OSAKA, Japan -- In one of its most substantial efforts to open its markets, China said yesterday that it would cut tariffs next year on more than 4,000 items by an average of at least 30 percent.

China's promise captured the spotlight on a day in which leaders of 18 Pacific Rim nations endorsed a blueprint to achieve free trade in their vast region by the year 2020, using what they called a new and unique voluntary approach.

"I believe the APEC meetings in Osaka were of historic significance in that they moved APEC from vision to action," said Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

To show their commitment, each nation announced a so-called initial action toward lowering its trade barriers. Rather than announcing bold new initiatives, however, many nations, including the United States, mainly listed actions they had already announced or taken.

The big exception was China, which needs to bring its trading practices more in line with international standards in order to join the World Trade Organization. It announced several other measures in addition to the tariff cuts.

Vice President Al Gore, representing President Clinton, cautiously praised China's measures but said more would have to be done before the Chinese would be ready to join the WTO.

"This was a positive step down that pathway," Mr. Gore said. "There are others."

C. Fred Bergsten, a Washington economist and chairman of an advisory group to the economic forum, said "30 percent or more tariff cuts sound fairly impressive."

But he said more needed to be known, such as what items will be subject to the cuts. He said China's tariffs average about 40 percent, so a 30 percent reduction is equivalent to about 12 percentage points.

Last week, the Clinton administration handed China a detailed "road map" of what it must do to be eligible to join the World Trade Organization, the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Chinese officials have reacted positively to the road map and appear to want to work with it, U.S. officials said.

How successful the economic forum will be at achieving its goal of free trade by 2010 for developed countries and 2020 for developing countries will not be known for many years.

The "action agenda" released by the leaders yesterday includes only guidelines and principles.

A good hint of how serious they are will come at next year's meeting in the Philippines, where all the nations will have to present their plans for dismantling their own barriers.

While these plans will be voluntary, the forum's members will make sure they are roughly "comparable."

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