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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WTO Approves China, Taiwan Membership

DOHA, Qatar -- A day after approving China's membership, World Trade Organization ministers got down to hard bargaining Sunday with some movement on at least one of their most divisive issues: ensuring access to medicines for poor countries.

They also paused to accept Taiwan's membership, a day after approving rival China.

"We feel extremely happy and gratified," Taiwanese President Chen said in Taipei, shortly after trade ministers in the assembly hall in Doha applauded the "historic moment."

China was moving fast meanwhile to formalize its membership. Chinese Foreign Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng said he would hand the ratification documents, signed by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, to WTO director-general Mike Moore on Sunday night. China will become a full-fledged member on Dec. 11, he said.

Most countries take months to complete the ratification process.

The move caps a 15-year effort by the world's most populous country to join the club that sets the rules for international commerce. WTO membership confers a host of benefits on China, including ending its status as an outsider from the rule-based system governing global markets.

In practical terms, China will enjoy protection against the arbitrary imposition of barriers on its goods, such as the sanctions that human rights activists have often advocated to punish Beijing for its treatment of dissidents.

Under a 1992 agreement, Taiwan could not join before China, which considers the island to be a breakaway province. For WTO purposes, Taiwan is classified as a "separate customs territory."

Shi said he hoped the two memberships would improve trade between the two but continued to insist that Taiwan is part of China.

"Accession to the WTO by both sides of the Straits will provide opportunities for the two sides to trade and conduct economic interaction. We hope the Taiwan authorities will seize this historic opportunity and recognize the principle of One China," he said.

Taiwanese Economics Minister Lin Hsin-i said Taiwan was hoping the WTO would overcome the differences holding up approval of its main order of business -- setting an agenda for new global trade talks.

"Fair, reasonable and transparent" trade negotiations would help developing countries emulate Taiwan's success of "creating high economic growth and living standards," he said.

Ministers from nearly all the WTO's 142 members broke up into working groups Sunday to try to hammer out differences dividing poorer nations from their industrialized counterparts.

"There are concerns among members about the failure of the conference," said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell. "It is by no means certain that they will bridge the gaps."

But some progress was reported on the crucial area of whether poor countries can violate patent rights on Western medicines to protect public health.

The European Union and other countries were seeking to bridge the gap between countries like the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Canada -- who are worried about undermining their pharmaceutical industries -- and developing countries led by Brazil and India, who charge that strict patent enforcement denies lifesaving drugs to poor countries.

Negotiators said several compromise texts surfaced Sunday that would be presented to the main players on both sides.

"There seems to be some movement," said a top Japanese negotiator, Shinichi Kitajima.

Sharp differences over agriculture remain between the EU, which wants to keep export subsidies, and the United States and big exporting countries, known as the Cairns Group, who want them phased out.

Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo called the current wording on agriculture "a house of cards."

Some observers reported dissension among the EU's 15 member states.

French Trade Minister Francois Huwart, whose farmers get the lion's share of the EU's farm budget, deflected a question about whether Paris was increasingly isolated in its insistence on conceding nothing in agriculture.

"It is a mandate that was accepted by everybody," he said of the EU position. "It would be astonishing if before the end of the negotiations we changed the mandate."

Ministers have until Tuesday evening to agree on a formal declaration setting out the areas in which they will hold negotiations. All are conscious that failure to agree -- as happened in 1999 in Seattle -- would paralyze the organization.

(AP, WP)