The US computer industry was this week predicting a massive boom in exports after President Clinton partially succeeded in persuading 18 Pacific Rim nations to eliminate tariffs on information technology by 2000.
Trade ministers from Asia Pacific countries had looked set to drag their heels over the tariff issue until Clinton made a personal plea to dismantle IT trade barriers to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, at its annual meeting in Manila last week.
The resulting declaration by the 18 member nations that they would "substantially eliminate" hi-tech tariffs by the turn of the century produces increased pressure for a similar global agreement to be announced at next month's World Trade Organisation meeting in Singapore, and left Clinton predicting a trade boom.
"Every year we (the US) sell $100 billion in information technology and that sector supports almost two million jobs in the US," he said. "Imagine if we went to zero tariffs in the entire world, what that would mean to America in more exports and higher-paying jobs."
But some industry observers were worried by the wording of the Apec statement, noting that there is no definition of what "substantially" means. Winston Lord, US assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, conceded that the wording of the declaration was carefully composed to allow some countries to take longer to comply on some hi-tech products.
Although Clinton had the backing of Japan, Mexico, Canada and Australia, it is thought that a number of other countries, notably China and Malaysia, only agreed to the declaration with reluctance and would not agree to any hard and fast commitments. China has refused to join the WTO.
In addition, if the WTO does not conclude its own agreement, there is no guarantee that the Apec countries will follow through on their declaration. Some WTO members with large markets and high protective tariffs, such as India and Brazil, are known to be unwilling to sign any global agreement.
The US IT industry appeared unwilling to let a little thing like semantics put it off. A legal affairs spokesman for Digital Equipment commented: "I'm not concerned about the one or two wrinkles in the wording and I don't think the US industry should be concerned."
Details of what the Apec reduction pact should cover - and who its signatories will be - will be negotiated in Geneva in the weeks running up to the Singapore WTO meeting.
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