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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
China wins Ecuador trade approval
China has signed a bilateral trade agreement with Ecuador, bringing it one step closer to joining the World Trade Organisation.
China must now reach deals with Mexico and Switzerland before it can begin formal accession procedures.
The Beijing government signed an agreement with the US in November last year, agreeing to open its markets in return for low-tariff access for its products in the US.
It reached agreement with the European Union in May and it now hopes to join the WTO this year.
China signed the agreement with Ecuador in Geneva.
Mexican and Chinese negotiators are expected to meet there on Thursday to outline negotiations over the coming weeks.
"We have one or two remaining issues. Basically we're almost finished," Alejandro de la Pena, Mexico's ambassador to the WTO, said.
The fiercest battle for the Chinese administration is still in the US.
The US Senate has still to vote on a trade bill, which would end the annual ritual of reviewing China's trade status.
The bill would also guarantee Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to US markets as products from nearly every other nation.
In exchange for these benefits, China has agreed to open a wide range of markets from agriculture to telecoms.
US Senate majority leader Trent Lott filed a motion on Wednesday that would direct the Senate to vote on the China bill in September.
"I am pleased to see the process move forward," US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky said.
"Prompt action is essential if the US is to benefit from China's accession to the WTO," she added.
Some obstacles could still emerge. Senator Lott has said he wants the Senate to vote on legislation that could lead to sanctions against China for alleged weapon sales to Pakistan.
While the bill is widely expected to be passed, the closer the vote gets to the November elections, the more likely it is to become a Republican bargaining chip.
The bill could be used by the Republicans to increase pressure on the Clinton administration to accept Republican spending priorities.