SPI REBUILDS FOREIGN TRADE MISSIONS FOR 1998

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WASHINGTON — The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. plans to resume its ``full-blown'' foreign trade missions next year and expand its international efforts to include programs that don't require companies to shell out the $10,000 typical of past trips.

The Washington-based trade group canceled planned missions to South Africa and Vietnam — in part in Vietnam because of U.S. government delays getting diplomats in place. Plus, SPI said earlier this year it wanted to use the hiatus to look at its trade mission policy.

But its International Trade Advisory Committee decided at an April 3 meeting to continue the missions, with two significant differences — cheaper alternatives for companies that want to expand international trade, and a structure that will give the industry a stronger voice in choosing where the missions go.

Those cheaper alternatives include organizing ``catalog shows'' that allow companies to spend $200-$500 to exhibit materials at trade show booths staffed by U.S. government representatives, and ``gold key'' trade trips, lower-cost versions of full missions that include meetings with local businesses but lack the clout of the more-extensive missions, said Lori Anderson, SPI's director of government affairs for economic and international trade issues.

SPI and the U.S. Department of Commerce organized five missions for about 50 companies between 1994 and 1996, with three to China, one to India and one to South America.

Past missions relied on the Commerce Department to select locations, using its strategy of targeting big emerging markets, but future efforts will ``switch a little bit and be member-driven,'' said Tim Stojka, chairman of ITAC and president and chief executive officer of Fast Heat Inc. in Elmhurst, Ill.

The Commerce Department will be more flexible in choosing markets in the future because the officials who targeted the emerging markets are no longer with the department, Anderson said: ``A lot of these things are politically driven.''

Countries being considered include China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Vietnam, SPI officials said.

SPI probably will not schedule a full mission anywhere until 1998, and may want to wait before returning to China until its political leadership stabilizes, Stojka said. The committee ``overwhelmingly'' favored continuing the missions, which are funded almost entirely by the companies that go, Anderson said.

SPI's review comes as the Commerce Department wraps up its own review of the missions. Other than requiring more documentation, new Commerce Department rules will not have much impact on SPI missions because the government review was aimed at reducing politics from high-profile missions, SPI officials said.

ITAC also decided to take positions on several international trade issues:

Support federal export financing, particularly the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. Both institutions are facing battles in Congress to eliminate them.

Oppose China's entry into the World Trade Organization as a developing country, which China wants. Such a designation would limit foreign access to its market.

Support ``fast track'' negotiating authority for the president on trade agreements but oppose Clinton administration plans to put labor and environmental issues in the trade agreements. SPI said Chile's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement hinges on Congress giving the president fast-track authority.