Cairns, Australia: Commerce ministers from the Asia-Pacific region called for countries holding up world trade talks to come back to the negotiating table.
“We need to make cuts in agricultural and industrial tariffs,” said a statement released on Thursday by the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) group in Cairns, Australia. “There has never been a more urgent need to make progress.
“We will demonstrate the necessary political will and flexibility, and call upon other World Trade Organization (WTO) members to do the same.”
The so-called Doha Round of trade talks, which are expected to add hundreds of billions of dollars in commerce and lift millions of people out of poverty, came close to collapse two weeks ago in Potsdam, Germany, over disagreements among the US, the European Union (EU), Brazil and India.
If not successful this year, the WTO negotiations on more free global trade “will go into hibernation,” US trade representative Susan Schwab said on Thursday in Cairns. Schwab blamed inflexibility by India and Brazil for the breakdown in talks in Potsdam.
“We need to be ambitious, but not so extreme that you put a country or group of countries out of the game,” she said.
Trade ministers from Apec—responsible for half the world’s trade—are meeting on Thursday and Friday in Cairns.
“We need to rescue it,” Lim Jock Seng, Brunei’s deputy minister for foreign affairs and trade, said of the Doha Round.
According to Indonesian trade minister Mari Pangestu, Japan will host a breakfast meeting of seven Apec ministers on Friday to coordinate an approach to supporting the Geneva talks. “This is the only real window of opportunity,” she said.
WTO chief Pascal Lamy was invited to Cairns, but decided to stay in Geneva, Australian trade minister Warren Truss said. India, Brazil and the EU are not part of Apec, which accounts for 41% of the world’s population and 56% of its gross domestic product.
Truss released the Apec statement in Cairns on Thursday and said, “It’s stronger than any language we’ve previously used.”
As many as 30 trade officials are scheduled to meet in Geneva later this month to thrash out differences over agriculture and manufacturing in a bid to arrive at a final series of “text” agreements.
“This is an opportunity for the members of Apec, who for the most part are pro-trade and very ambitious, to make a strong and emphatic statement to the authors in Geneva that we do not support the low-ambition commentaries coming out in the last few weeks,” Schwab said.
“We were very surprised at how rigid and inflexible India and Brazil were at Potsdam,” Schwab said.
“We met with a brick wall. Unfortunately India and Brazil chose to walk away from what would have been a very valuable outcome.”
Talks have stalled over the failure of the US, the EU, India, Brazil and China to open up agricultural and industrial markets and end subsidies.
“This will be about the fourth or fifth time Apec trade ministers or leaders have called for change in Geneva and it never follows,” said Alan Oxley, chairman of the Apec Study Centre at Australia’s Monash University in Melbourne.
“The key problem is the European community. Until they act significantly to cut their trade barriers in agriculture, things won’t move.”
Apec was crucial to saving the previous set of trade talks, called the Uruguay Round, in the 1990s, which also floundered on agriculture subsidy issues.
The ambitious and troubled Doha agenda, launched six years ago, has stalled over a failure to reach deals on rice, poultry, bananas and manufactured goods, among others. “In the case of the Doha Round,” Schwab said on Thursday, “we have had one effort and failure after another on the road to closure.”
The 150-nation WTO has set a 2007 deadline for the Doha Round. Ideally, the framework of a deal should be complete by early August.
WTO rules require that all members agree to all parts of the agenda.
The World Bank said in 2005 a successful implementation of Doha could reduce the number of people living in poverty by 32 million within 10 years.
Developing nations want the EU and the US to scale back agricultural tariffs that protect their farmers. Europe and the US are seeking more access to industrial and manufactured goods markets in countries such as India and Brazil.
US President George W. Bush’s so-called fast track, or trade promotion authority, expired at the end of June. It allowed trade deals to essentially bypass congressional scrutiny, which could take months.
A hostile US Congress could pick apart any deal struck by Bush’s negotiators and stall a deal beyond 2007.
Apec includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the US and Vietnam.
Anthony Spaeth contributed to this story.