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Deng Xiaoping’s historic programme of opening up to the outside world, started in the early 1980s, is also referred to as China’s “Open Door” policy. But some cynics suggest that “Open Gate” would have been more accurate.

As in a traditional Chinese courtyard home, they argue, one may enter through the compound’s main gate only to find all the doors to its various buildings closed.

It is an experience that can seem familiar even today.

Want to enter so-called “strategic” industries currently dominated by Beijing’s 120-odd centrally administered state-owned enterprises? Sorry, the doors leading to China’s energy, rail and telecommunications sectors — to cite just a few examples — are firmly locked.

Want to manufacture and sell cars in the world’s largest automotive market? Then the only way through that door is with a 50-50 local joint venture partner.

Some of the doors that foreign investors can walk through today were formally opened 14 years ago, when China acceded to the World Trade Organisation. However, for the multinational companies that so welcomed China’s accession, subsequent negotiating rounds failed to further open member nations’ markets. To foreign investors and Chinese reformers, the result was a “lost decade” in which Beijing’s appetite for bold market reforms dissipated.

This lost decade had its compensations. Double-digit economic growth, an unprecedented infrastructure investment programme and soaring urban incomes transformed China into a very lucrative market for many foreign companies.

Then, during the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the Rmb4tn stimulus unleashed by Beijing poured more fuel on the fire. Some executives now refer to the period as a “golden era”, the likes of which may never be seen again.

Had China been included in the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, Beijing could — in theory — have signed up to its first significant new liberalisation regime since joining the WTO.

But Beijing is the toughest of negotiators, and Washington decided that it could get, say, 90 per cent of what it wanted in a “high-quality” trade agreement that initially excluded China. According to the Obama administration’s calculation, that was better than getting 60 per cent of what it wanted in a TPP pact that included Beijing.

To try to force open some of China’s closed doors, the US is instead seeking a Bilateral Investment Treaty. This BIT is supposed to secure equal treatment for US and Chinese companies in both countries’ markets, with exceptions spelt out in a narrowly defined “negative list”.

In essence, the negative list is the investment equivalent of the more recent political compact between the ruling Chinese Communist party and the people of China. Where Mao Zedong tried to control all facets of people’s lives, Deng decided it was easier to ensure they did not cross certain lines — public criticism of the party being the most obvious. Similarly, a commercial negative list can specify the few sectors that foreign companies cannot enter — with everything not on the list theoretically open to investors.

China’s negative list, however, has been delayed for so long now it risks becoming an almost mythic document.

Western diplomats say the delay is not surprising given the vested interests at stake. Once a certain industry is opened to foreign investment, it is almost impossible to go back. A senior US Treasury official told reporters in Beijing on Monday that Washington “made clear it has to be an ambitious negative list”.

One of the reasons the once vaunted Shanghai free-trade zone has been such a disappointment, investors suggest, is the lack of just such a negative list.

The EU, meanwhile, is pursuing an even more ambitious Bilateral Investment Agreement with China. For Brussels, it is not enough for European companies to enjoy the same treatment as Chinese firms. The EU wants Beijing to liberalise the way it regulates all companies, Chinese included.

Because of its loftier goals, Brussels’ agreement is expected to take longer to craft than Washington’s, as was acknowledged by China’s commerce minister at the recent session of the National People’s Congress.

But until a robust Sino-US BIT and Sino-EU BIA finally do appear, many American and European companies will continue to find themselves stuck in the courtyard of China’s marketplace, knocking on closed doors.

tom.mitchell@ft.com

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