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US, China Sign Deals to Safeguard Food

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CHRISTOPHER BODEEN | December 11, 2007 06:54 AM EST | AP

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BEIJING — The United States and China sparred over intellectual property protections and signed agreements on safeguarding the quality of food and drugs exports to the U.S. Tuesday at the start of a series of contentious economic meetings.

Other agreements included one to boost the number of Chinese tourists going to the United States and several geared toward expanding U.S. access to Chinese markets, from agriculture to telecommunications.

China's exports have come under intense scrutiny this year because a number of potentially deadly chemicals have been found in goods including toothpaste, toys and seafood. In March, tainted pet food made in China was blamed for the deaths of cats and dogs in North America.

The agreements on food and feed product safety and on drugs and medical devices were signed at the end of a meeting of the China-U.S. Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade by U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The agreements require "require specific steps and set clear deadlines," Leavitt said.

"Taken together, these agreements will enhance the safety of scores of household items the American people consume on a daily basis," he said.

A Health Department statement said the agreements will establish bilateral mechanisms to provide more information on the goods imported into the United States. Exporters will have to register with Chinese authorities.

The agreements also call for more U.S. access to Chinese production facilities.

"To keep up with the pace of global commerce, we need a fundamental shift from trying to catch unsafe products as they come in, to building quality and safety into products before they reach our borders," Leavitt said.

Vice Premier Wu Yi said Tuesday that big steps had been taken in the last few months in improving China's product safety, but added there were gaps between developing and developed countries in standards and supervision.

"This means we need to expand our common ground and jointly strengthen our supervision and control efforts to improve product quality," she said in a commentary published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

China's global trade surplus totaled $26.28 billion in November, the government announced Tuesday, showing that foreign demand for low-cost Chinese goods has stayed strong despite a string recalls.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez praised a tourism accord that allows Chinese group travel to the United States, saying it will "open a large and growing market for the U.S. travel and tourism industry."

There were also agreements on developing and producing biofuels and opening China's second-tier cities to U.S. exports.

Talks on the thriving but contentious trade relationship began with China strongly objecting to U.S. action on intellectual property rights, Gutierrez said.

He said Wu, China's top negotiator, communicated "very strongly and very directly that she felt very uncomfortable" with a recent case on intellectual property rights the U.S. took to the World Trade Organization.

Wu did not mention the dispute in opening remarks to the joint commission, but alluded to what she called "unharmonious noises" in trade relations.

She singled out a rising number of bills in the U.S. Congress targeting Chinese imports as well as media reports questioning the safety of Chinese products that she said "seriously harmed the reputation of Chinese exports and the nation's image."

Chinese and American officials have pledged to fend off what they said were rising protectionist sentiments in both countries.

"If there were to be limits on or protectionist measures taken against normal trade, that would only harm our mutual interests and would not help solve the problem," Wu said.

The WTO opened an investigation last month into Chinese restrictions on the sale of American movies, music and books following Washington's fourth commercial complaint against Beijing in a little over a year.

The United States said that "less favorable distribution opportunities" in China for foreign-made CDs, DVDs and computer software have cost American companies millions.

The commission on commerce and trade looks at near-term regulatory and legal issues, and will be followed Wednesday and Thursday by the Strategic Economic Dialogue that grapples with longer-term economic plans. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will participate in those talks.

The talks come amid rising anger in the U.S. Congress over China's massive trade surplus and demands that Washington act forcefully halt what some members see as currency manipulation by Beijing and other unfair trade practices.

The U.S. trade deficit with China appears set to surpass last year's record $233 billion, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures.