WASHINGTON — China apparently is trying to carve out high tariffs for plastic resin and finished goods as part of its attempt to gain coveted entrance into the World Trade Organization.
U.S. and Chinese government officials declined to comment on specifics of the ongoing talks, but trade officials with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington said China wants to be allowed to set tariffs at a rate double that commonly set for chemicals.
Countries that join WTO typically cut tariffs for chemicals — including plastic resin and products — to about 6 percent, with reductions phased in over several years.
But China would like the floor for its plastic tariffs set at between 12 and 15 percent, said Lori Anderson, director of economic and international trade issues for SPI. Anderson said the information comes from meetings with U.S. trade officials.
Many of the current Chinese tariffs are higher than 6 percent, with some topping 30 percent, according to U.S. government officials. But the high tariffs may not always be implemented, making the process confusing for U.S. companies.
The United States reportedly wants China to open markets in insurance, automobiles, telecommunications and agriculture as a condition to joining WTO. WTO membership would get China automatic most-favored nation trading status.
Developing countries in WTO sometimes want higher tariffs to protect industries they have targeted for growth, and U.S. government officials say privately that China has targeted plastics. Plastics industry officials say they fear U.S. negotiators will give China flexibility on plastics, in return for opening other, larger, markets.
An official with the commercial division of China's embassy in Washington declined to discuss specifics.
``China is trying to open its markets to the outside world — it will help us in developing our own country,'' the Chinese official said. ``Maybe the U.S. requests too much, too quick — for instance, on insurance and finance.''
In a March 18 letter to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, SPI wrote that allowing tariffs for China to be higher than the Chemical Tariff Harmonization Agreement discriminates against U.S. manufacturers.
``The Chinese plastics industry is a highly competitive and state-of-the-art industry,'' the SPI letter said. ``It is preposterous that the Chinese plastics resin and product industry should be considered a developing sector warranting tariffs higher than those in the CHTA.''
A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said it is ``premature to speculate'' on what any final agreement might include.
China is the 12th-largest U.S. market for exports of plastic resin and products, with $487 million shipped there in 1998, a 7.5 percent decline from the previous year, according to U.S. government statistics.
By comparison, China is the third-largest shipper of plastic resin and goods to the United States, sending $1.5 billion worth of material in 1998. That's a 5.5 percent increase from 1997, according to U.S. statistics.
United States and Chinese officials have been meeting in Beijing in hopes of reaching an agreement before Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visits Washington in early April. Some observers speculate that if an agreement cannot be reached soon, U.S. presidential politics and the change of administrations will make it tough to reach agreement before 2001. Reports of Chinese nuclear spying further complicate Congressional reaction.
China reportedly also wants higher tariffs for cosmetics, SPI said.
Plastic also has taken a role in an ongoing trade dispute between the United States and the European Union, and by some reports figures into a trade argument between Washington and Canada.
U.S. negotiators have threatened to put 100 percent tariffs on $520 million in EU goods, including $88 million in plastic shipping tape, in a spat over access to Europe's banana market. The case is before a WTO arbitration panel to decide how much damage U.S. companies suffered, according to a USTR spokeswoman.
The Canadian dispute centers around Canada's recent moves to limit U.S. magazines that do special Canadian editions to attract local advertising, so-called ``split runs.''
Some reports said the U.S. government had put plastic products on the list of goods it would slap with retaliatory tariffs if Canada limits split runs, but a USTR spokeswoman said no target lists have been developed. Both countries are engaged in what USTR termed ``constructive dialogue.''