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Asians hopeful new tiger will boost economy

THE MOST telling verdict on yesterday's deal on China's application to join the World Trade Organisation came from the Hong Kong stock market. Share prices jumped to their highest level for two years, so optimistic are investors about the impact WTO membership would have on the Chinese economy and Asia generally.

Economists said it was the most significant step forward in China's economic reform programme since the last big policy measures were announced by Deng Xiaoping in 1992. The agreement, although yet to be ratified in the United States and elsewhere, commits the government to further reforms and opens up the prospect of a period of rapid, catch-up growth in China.

The birth of a new Asian tiger, conceived through China's public commitment yesterday to the global market, would be a neat finale to the financial crisis that started in Asia two years ago. The agreement on WTO membership is more than that, however.

While extremely unlikely to be ratified in time for the annual ministerial meeting of the WTO in Seattle at the end of this month, China's decision to seek membership is an important boost for the embattled organisation. Negotiators are seeking to launch a "millennium round" of talks to liberalise trade further, but experts fear there is too little common ground for a fresh trade round. Not only are there rows brewing between Europe and the US over agriculture, there is the danger that developing countries might walk out over what they see as protectionism on the part of the rich countries.

The China deal means theWTO meeting will have at least one bit of good news.

That might just be enough to keep up the momentum of trade liberalisation even if the concerns about the negotiations prove well-founded.