Despite concerns that U.S. influence is being radically challenged in this arena (see column of March 4), government officials in their fifth annual ''National Export Strategy'' report a number of successes on the international standards and testing fronts.

Most of these successes have taken place through mutual recognition of standards and testing practices between trading partners, as in the case of the United States and Europe.

Mutual recognition is supposed to cut back on costly, redundant certification and lab testing. U.S. Commerce Department officials also cite the maturation of the World Trade Organization, as well as a continued and strengthened official U.S. presence abroad, as positive developments for the protection of U.S. interests.



Promotion of Mutual Recognition Agreements is a cornerstone of the Commerce's strategy to protect U.S. standards and testing practices worldwide. Here's a chronicle of progress made on MRAs, as described in the export strategy report:

''On June 20, 1997, the Clinton administration took the path-breaking step with the EU of lowering non-tariff barriers to market access by concluding the first U.S. Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) which liberalizes market access related to testing, inspections, and product certifications for more than $30 billion of U.S. exports and $57 billion in two-way trade.

''The sectors covered include certain aircraft, telecommunications and information technology equipment, medical devices, pharmaceutical products, electrical and electronic machinery, and recreational craft. U.S. manufacturers and private sector testing and inspection services are now, as a result of this agreement, on an equal footing with Europe.

''These agreements are particularly useful to small businesses who need third-party testing since they lack 'in-house' laboratories and cannot afford the high cost of foreign-based labs. This accomplishment goes a long way to achieving the business communities' goal of 'One test, accepted everywhere,' or the equally demanding 'one standard-one test, suppliers declaration of conformity for worldwide acceptance.' ''

''This is an important accomplishment because while U.S. exporters face many challenges, few are more complex and costly than unnecessary standards requirements in foreign countries. These MRAs also illustrate the significant benefits that can be realized when the U.S. private sector and the U.S. regulatory community are brought together by a strong administration focus on standards . . .

''The MRA concept can and should be applied in technical areas that support exporting by liberalizing regulatory acceptance at more fundamental levels of technical market access than product approval, such as calibration equivalency and laboratory accreditation.

''In Latin America, the U.S. government is working to develop a single measurement infrastructure throughout the Americas that would assure confidence in the accreditation of calibration and product testing labs.

''Moreover, the U.S. will endeavor to reach agreement with the European Union's Eurom ET over calibration and measurement certifications with the goal to eliminate the need to calibrate equipment in both regions.

''The United States is pursuing other possibilities for streamlining costs associated with conformity assessment procedures, including expanded opportunities for testing and certification performed by U.S.-based bodies to be accepted by authorities in foreign markets . . .

''Finally, 1998 may see the introduction of multilateral sectoral negotiations to remove standards-related impediments to trade. With the reduction of tariffs for information technology products, attention is being turned to possibilities for removing non-tariff barriers arising from divergent standards and regulations, and multiple requirements for product testing and certification in the negotiations for Information Technology Agreement II.''



In order to broaden U.S. influence globally on foreign markets' reliance on technical regulations and standards, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has placed standards experts in a few key markets: Brussels (to interface with the European Commission), Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina and India.

The institute, known by its acronym NIST, offers standards workshops that enable the United States to establish close working relationships with counterpart technical and regulatory experts in important market countries. These contacts, exchanges and training provide important technical support for standards-related market access.

NIST plans to expand the standards expert program to other important markets, notably Russia, China, and Brazil. Expansion of the program is contingent upon congressional approval.



The conclusion of the Uruguay Round multilateral trade negotiations and the entry into force of the World Trade Organization in 1995 marked a significant increase in the number of WTO members now obligated to adhere to the disciplines of the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

The TBT Agreement is the chief international trade agreement that provides binding obligations on governments in their development, adoption and application of standards (voluntary), technical regulations (mandatory) and conformity assessment procedures (procedures used to determine whether a particular product meets a standard or technical regulation).

More than 131 governments are now WTO members and all have accepted the obligations of the TBT Agreement.

''Discussions with APEC economies in the Subcommittee on Standards and Conformance, and in the Free Trade Area of the Americas Working Group on Standards and Technical Barriers to Trade, have reinforced the importance and understanding of the WTO obligations,'' the National Export Strategy report says.

''The United States has been vigilant in its discussions with countries wishing to accede to the WTO (e.g., Russia, China, Saudi Arabia) in ensuring that these prospective members share a common understanding of the rules of the system and can implement them on a systematic basis,'' it says.

The TBT Agreement posits that further liberalization can be achieved through MRAs that recognize the results of product testing, inspection, certification and other aspects of conformity assessment performed in other countries.

Washington's top priority is to fully implement and assess the MRAs negotiated with the EU in all sectors so that U.S. exporters can reap the benefits of the agreement while ensuring health and safety in the regulated sectors.

Through the U.S. Trade Representative office's Trade Policy Review Group, the United States will consider sector-specific agreements with APEC economies, particularly in the area of telecommunications and information technology.

Washington also will consider further agreements with the EU in key sectors recommended by industry, as well as the feasibility of extending these MRAs to Central and Eastern European countries slated for early accession to the EU.

The United States plans to follow up on the results of the Inter-American Telecommunications Commission (Citel) Ad Hoc Group and explore possible MRAs with eligible Latin American countries under the recently concluded Citel Guidelines for Conformity Assessment.