China Takes A Big Leap

China's long march to capitalism passes a milestone this weekend when the Communist-run nation officially joins the World Trade Organization.

Consumers around the world will start seeing even more goods marked "Made in China" in their stores, and companies will tremble at the prospect of even more inexpensive goods flooding world markets.

But bringing China into international systems such as WTO will help temper its worst behavior, both as a possible threat to its neighbors and in its treatment of dissidents.

Joining the WTO, like its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, is part of China's strategy to become a global power. That creates unease in Washington, which both welcomes China's economic growth and worries about how China might use its exports and imports as a diplomatic weapon.

China has a track record of using its huge market to force nations into making decisions they otherwise wouldn't make. Such actions will be more difficult under WTO rules, but old habits may die hard.

That's why the US should look closely at yesterday's announcement by China and Southeast Asian nations that they plan to form a free-trade area within 10 years.

In theory, this free-trade zone would have a total market of 1.7 billion consumers - albeit mainly poor ones. That could make it the largest in the world. If it succeeds, it will help China overtake Germany and Japan to become the world's second-largest trading nation after the US.

In fact, China is pushing Japan aside as Asia's economic giant, forcing Southeast Asian nations to court China through a free-trade zone. Many of those nations have yet to recover from the region's 1997 financial collapse, and they need access to China's market. Japan's efforts to form trade pacts in Asia have faltered on its unwillingness to open its agricultural markets.

If talks on liberalizing global trade fail at the coming WTO meeting, then many nations may just join regional trade pacts. Congress can help avert that balkanization of trade by giving the president authority to negotiate trade deals that can only be voted up or down by Congress.

Then the US, along with China and Japan, can remain a major economic player in Asia, helping to stabilize a volitile region.

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