MAKE SURE THE OTHER CHINA GETS INTO WTO, TOO

It seems hardly a day can go by without a news item on China's campaign for World Trade Organization membership and the closely related issue of the United States extending it permanent normal-trade-relations status.

China has reportedly decided it is committed to gaining WTO membership this year - regardless of a U.S. congressional vote on permanent NTR. Europe continues its own negotiations with China on WTO membership.Generally absent from the public debate, however, is discussion of WTO membership for Taiwan, also known as the ''other China,'' which is likely to have a greater short-term impact on the U.S. economy.

Even many informed observers overlook the fact that Taiwan is a more important market for U.S. exports than China. Last year, Taiwan imported $19.1 billion worth of goods from the United States; China imported only $13.1 billion.

Over the last two decades, Taiwan has consistently been a more important market for most U.S. industries, including those most aggressively advocating Beijing's WTO membership, than China.

The relative lack of attention to Taiwan's WTO membership in the United States is even more surprising since virtually all observers concede that Taiwan is likely to be a better WTO member than China.

In contrast to China's consistent record of shirking its commitments under trade agreements, Taiwan has aggressively negotiated meaningful commitments with all of its major trading partners and has a good record of fulfilling the trade promises it has made.

Taiwan forthrightly began the WTO negotiations by committing to accept the full set of obligations assumed by all developed countries. For its part, China has argued that its development status should exempt it from discipline.

Economic estimates of increases in exports are always debatable. Especially in light of China's compliance record and the constant prospect that China may devalue its currency, however, the chances are quite good that Taiwan's WTO membership will demonstrate a greater increase in U.S. exports than China's. This projection is particularly strong for the next 10 years.

In light of all this, it is perplexing that Taiwan's WTO membership has been a nearly invisible issue. This dearth of attention is all the more surprising because there is really only one reason why Taiwan is not now a WTO member: China does not want Taiwan to join the WTO before it does.

After World War II, China and Taiwan were at comparable levels of economic and political development. China has grown well for the last decade and a half, but Taiwan has surged past it. Taiwan is now a major trading power with a fully developed economy and democratic government; China is short of those marks.

Apparently believing that Taiwan's WTO membership would underline the differences between the two, China has fought Taiwan's membership through surrogates. The central problem is that Beijing believes that it should control Taiwan. Obviously, in practice it does not. But China usually fights tooth and nail against any measures, including membership for Taiwan in international negotiations, that seem to raise questions about the increasingly tenuous claim.

By spending diplomatic capital and acting through surrogate countries that are WTO members, China has managed to keep Taiwan - which is widely seen around the world as an excellent candidate for WTO membership - out of the WTO.

According to statements made by trade officials from a number of countries, China has agreed to let Taiwan join the WTO, once it has been allowed to join. Trade officials in many countries, including Taiwan, treat this as a firm agreement.

But Beijing's record on past promises should at least give all reason to wonder if China, upon achieving membership, might try some last-minute strategy to block Taiwan's membership. There has been, for example, speculation in the press that China might try to insist that Taiwan agree to a change in the name on its application.

To avoid this problem, Taiwan has sought membership in the WTO as a customs territory, not as an independent country. There are, however, limits on the degree that Taiwan would go to protect Beijing's illusions, and China could seek to use these to derail Taiwan's WTO application.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from experience on agreements with China - unofficial and otherwise - it is that there is ''many a slip between the cup and the lip.''

Assuming an adequate regime is in place to enforce China's compliance with the WTO, Beijing should be allowed to join the WTO. But U.S. trade officials and Congress should spare no effort to ensure that Taiwan, by far the better WTO candidate, is also allowed to join.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe