Seven large ocean carriers are working with the government to develop Taiwan's first electronic data interchange system.

Such a network, known as EDI, replaces laborious paper documentation for trade with standardized forms sent to and from computers. It speeds up business and cuts costs and is rapidly becoming mandatory in many countries as companies take advantage of its benefits.Taiwan's customs authority and the directorate general of telecommunications are helping to design a system that eventually will link shipping companies directly with Taiwanese and U.S. customs offices.

The Ministry of Finance is drafting a proposal to automate trade clearance procedures in a four-year plan. It is expected to pass its proposal to the executive yuan, Taiwan's administrative branch, later this year.

The seven original participants are the American President Lines unit of American President Cos., Sea-Land Service Inc., locally based Evergreen Marine Corp., Yangming Marine Transport Co., Chinese Maritime Transport, Nan Tai Enterprise and Corvetine Shipping.

Several already have established electronic links as demand for EDI processing grows.

State-owned Yangming and Oakland, Calif.-based American President forged electronic links with Taiwan customs in January. Those two, plus Sea-Land of Edison, N.J., and Chinese Maritime are linked into the computer systems at U.S. customs.

The EDI project is currently reserved for the shipping industry, where computer use is widespread. Other sectors, including airlines and manufacturering, may be brought into an overall blueprint due to be released later this year.

The science and technology advisory panel of Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs has asked the local Institute for Information Industry to carry out a six-month study on the need for EDI in Taiwan.

This study, which got off the ground in April, may result in a pilot project toward the end of this year, said Phillip Chen, EDI coordinator at the institute.

Fueling interest is the success of Singapore's TradeNet system, the most advanced in East and Southeast Asia. Consultancy studies in Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea also have had an effect.

Many see EDI as an uphill battle, however. In some respects it mirrors the one being waged in Hong Kong, which has spent years and millions of dollars on studies but has little concrete to show so far.

Early meetings for the six-month survey resulted in disagreement among government and business professionals, mostly concerning broad legal and standards issues.

There is a growing feeling that if Taiwan hopes to pursue EDI, the government will have to handle most of the development. That's what happened in Singapore, whereas Hong Kong is relying heavily on the private sector.

Officials have visited Singapore to learn from the TradeNet experience, and trips to the United States and Europe are scheduled for later this year.

Singapore is not a perfect model. Taiwan, like Hong Kong, must cope with such important local issues as Chinese language; Taiwan also would need a radical overhaul of its telecommunications laws.

"Singapore is different. Whatever the government says there, they can just do it. It doesn't work that way in Taiwan," Mr. Chen told The Journal of Commerce.