Published January 13, 2015
Trade ministers from almost all the World Trade Organization's 142 members formally approved China's membership on Saturday with a unanimous, if fully predetermined, vote.
China will "abide by WTO rules and honor its commitments while enjoying its rights," Chinese Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng said. China's entry into the WTO marks a turn away from the communist country's former isolationist policies and brings the country's 1.2 billion citizens into the global marketplace.
Admission into the WTO did not come easily for China. The country first applied for membership in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the WTO's predecessor, in 1986. In the 15 years since, China has been changing local and national laws to comply with the requirements of WTO membership.
One of the most contentious points was resolved only 18 months ago; the admission of Taiwan, which will occur on Sunday. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province that left after a 1949 civil war.
Taiwan will be admitted as a separate customs territory — not as a separate country. Its admission to the WTO will occur tomorrow because of a 1992 understanding between China and Taiwan that the former country would be admitted first.
China's admission means that it will have to open its markets to goods from other WTO members, but also that it will be able to export to WTO members — a fact that makes its neighbors nervous.
China will become a full member of the WTO 30 days after its parliament ratifies the agreement. That move could come as early as Sunday.
Other than the vote on China's admission, however, there was little cooperation to be seen at the meeting, with several nations taking potentially inconsistent positions on a key patent protection issue.
Developing countries, led by Brazil and India, are pushing for a declaration that would say nothing in the WTO's rules would prevent them from taking action to protect public health. The U.S., Switzerland, Japan and Canada oppose the resolution, saying the effect would be to allow any country to ignore patent protection on medicines.
"This open-ended language would lead to mass erosion of patent protections — from pharmaceuticals to medical software — and thwart research into medicines that can save lives," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said earlier.
Another issue pushed by developing nations was new language on so-called anti-dumping rules, which allow industrial nations to block goods imported at below-market price, usually due to subsidies.
While the U.S. was willing to discuss such changes, Zoellick said, the country's position is that "any possible work in this area discipline the unfair trade practices themselves, not just the rules for countering them."
Agricultural subsidies proved to be a contentious issue once again. The EU's 15 nations are pushing for the right to use agricultural subsidies to promote rural development and environmental protection.
Jim Sutton, New Zealand's agriculture minister, said everyone supports such goals as protecting the environment and aiding rural communities.
But, he added, "If they wish to have their fence posts painted white and their hedgerows trimmed, for goodness sake subsidize the trimming of hedges and the painting of fence posts. Don't subsidize the farm production and hope that some of the money will be spent on paint."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.