- The Washington Times - Friday, August 25, 2000

An international trade dispute does not typically result in criminal charges, but tell that to Mike Murray.

Mr. Murray, the vice president of marketing for the American Natural Soda Ash Corp., found out by fax in March that he was a wanted man in India because of his efforts to export his company's product to that nation.

"I was dumbfounded when it happened," Mr. Murray said. "I had never heard of such a thing."

The recent twist is only one of the factors driving efforts to resolve a long-running trade dispute when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visits Washington in mid-September. Gene Sperling, head of the White House National Economic Council, wrapped up a pre-summit visit to India this week, having raised the issue as a key item on the agenda, an administration official said.

And, owing to an odd coincidence of politics and geography, soda-ash producers are looking forward to the November presidential elections, which will install one of their allies in the country's second-highest office, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats win.

Soda ash, a white crystalline substance, is a key ingredient in both glass and detergents of all kinds, making it an unknown substance to most people but big business.

Wyoming is home to the world's most abundant supply of trona, the mineral from which soda ash is derived, and home to Richard B. Cheney, the Republican vice presidential candidate. The soda-ash company is headquartered in Connecticut, which is represented in the Senate by Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic candidate.

Mr. Murray's predicament stems from his group's sour relations with Indian authorities over the company's inability to export soda ash to that potentially lucrative market. American companies, through the American Natural Soda Ash Corp. (ANSAC), their trading company, exported $447 million worth of soda ash in 1999.

India, which bought no soda ash last year, is a market worth as much as $25 million each year, according to U.S. companies, if India reduced tariffs and taxes on imports that boost the price of imports by nearly 70 percent, and broke up what the U.S. companies say is a cartel that inhibits competition.

"There's no way you can export under [circumstances] like that," said John McDermid, a lobbyist for ANSAC.

But the U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Celeste, has told the soda-ash industry that he has had virtually no success in opening the Indian market to U.S. exports.

Officials at the Indian Embassy did not return calls seeking comment.

As the Americans tell it, their problems in the Indian market originate with three Indian companies that produce synthetic soda ash. A de facto cartel controlling 90 percent of the market, they have hijacked India's antitrust agency and used it to stop American imports, U.S. companies say.

In 1996, India slightly reduced its tariffs on soda ash, prompting ANSAC to ship 23,000 tons of the product to India. Indian producers, charging that the Americans were engaged in "predatory dumping," promptly asked antitrust authorities to bar further U.S. shipments by ANSAC, which they did.

India accuses the U.S. company of being a cartel itself. The company is the marketing agent for the five major American soda-ash producers and operates under a special exemption to U.S. antitrust laws.

American producers responded by asking the Clinton administration to revoke India's privileges under a U.S. government program that lets certain products from developing countries into the United States duty-free. And in March 1999, Mr. Murray, his boss and ANSAC's lawyer laid out their case before an administrative committee at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

At the behest of the Indian producers, shortly before President Clinton visited India in March, antitrust officials charged Mr. Murray and his colleagues with making "unkind and defamatory" statements about the Indian agency. The Indian Supreme Court subsequently stayed the unprecedented move, but declined to lift the indictment entirely, leaving Mr. Murray in an uneasy limbo.

"Our counsel has advised me not to travel to India," he said. "I don't want to end up in a U.S. prison, let alone an Indian one."

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has not decided whether to curtail India's trade privileges, a spokesman said, raising suspicions that action is being put off to avoid spoiling Mr. Vajpayee's visit to Washington.

One major source of frustration for soda-ash producers has been that nontrade issues, particularly India's dalliance with nuclear weapons and its conflicts with Pakistan, have overshadowed industry pressure on the Clinton administration to find a solution to the dispute.

And Robert Burt, chairman of Chicago-based FMC Corp., a top soda-ash producer, is well-connected. He is both chairman of the Business Roundtable, arguably the leading industry lobby group in Washington, and a high school friend of Mr. Celeste's.

But soda-ash producers expect to have more political muscle on their side after the next president takes office. Both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman frequently have helped the companies.

"The next election is a no-lose situation for us," Mr. Murray said. "We will have someone at the highest levels who knows the issue and is willing to do something about it."

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