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China officially joins WTO

DOHA, Qatar -- Trade ministers from across the world have officially approved China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) after 15 years of negotiations.

The move was approved unanimously at the WTO's ministerial meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar on Saturday and brings a market of 1.3 billion people into the global trading system.

China's entry is expected to boost economic reforms started in the world's most populous nation more than 20 years ago and open the huge market to the rest of the world.

To applause, trade ministers from almost all the WTO's 142 members unanimously voted in favour of China's application.

China will become a full member 30 days after its parliament ratifies the agreement and informs the WTO. That may happen as soon as Sunday.

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The approval of once-isolated communist China was planned to give the WTO maximum publicity and to ensure that some positive news would come out of the meeting, which has the main aim of launching a new round of trade liberalisation negotiations.

On Sunday members are expected to admit China's neighbour, Taiwan.

"Both are already major influences in world trade. Their participation in the WTO will be a boost for us and them," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told the plenary session before the vote.

French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius said the WTO could not genuinely be called a "world" organisation without the world's most populous nation.

"When a country as important as China decides to join the WTO, it means there is a new impetus toward the development of trade," he said.

"We see China as very good partners... and I believe their entrance is definitely going to help us," Nigerian Trade Minister Mustapha Bello said.

Intense security

WTO Director-General Mike Moore said on Friday that the entry of China and Taiwan was "a major historic event."

The WTO meeting is being held amid intense security following the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities and U.S.-led counter-strikes on Afghanistan.

To guard against possible attack, Qatar has thrown a cordon around the talks, and a U.S. helicopter ship and two other vessels carrying 2,100 marines stand sentry in the sparkling waters off the capital Doha.

As serious negotiations began on Saturday, it became clear that rich countries such as the United States and the European Union still have a lot of work to do if they are to convince developing countries to agree to a new trade round.

Developing country opposition helped sink attempts to launch a round at the last WTO meeting in Seattle two years ago.

Kenyan Planning Minister Adhu Awiti said that, at present, Kenya was not ready to give the go-ahead to a new trade round.

"As it stands now, we would not be ready to go for a new set of negotiations when we are not satisfied with the explanation of why the old ones have not been implemented," he told Reuters.

"We'd rather get the old implemented and take the new positions step by step," Awiti said, adding that this was a view shared by African nations and developing countries in general. Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz told Reuters she saw the chances of a new round being launched as only 50/50.

EU agenda

She said there were differences between the EU and the rest of the world on the environment and other issues.

The EU wants environmental issues and investment and competition rules discussed in a new round in addition to the traditional issues of agriculture, industrial goods and services. Developing countries oppose that.

The last WTO meeting in Seattle was disrupted by mass street protests against globalisation. But just a few hundred union and environmental activists have been granted visas by Qatar.

China will benefit from WTO membership, using entry to give the final push towards a market economy after Communist leader Deng Xiaoping started the revolution in 1978.

Though some members did voice fears about Beijing's ability to stand by its pledges.

Chinese officials dismissed the concern.

"China's market is open to the outside. As long as the market is open to the outside, the more economic growth we have and the better for the world," Beijing's top trade negotiator Long Yongtu told reporters.

China is already the world's seventh largest trader and is keen to champion the cause of developing countries after it enters the WTO.

But some countries worry that China's entry could bring more trade disputes as Beijing tests its new-found power.

Tokyo is already embroiled in a festering trade dispute with China over a surge in Chinese agricultural exports to Japan.


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