New Delhi: US trade representative Ron Kirk says the United States has started bilateral talks with India and Brazil to resolve contentious issues at the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Geneva. In an interview with Mint, Kirk advocates a combination of bilateral and multilateral negotiations to resolve thorny issues for a successful conclusion of the WTO’s Doha development round. WTO member countries, at a mini ministerial meeting in New Delhi in September, resolved to conclude negotiations by the end of 2010.

Resolving issues: Ron Kirk. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

What are the key bilateral issues that you will be addressing through the Indo-US Trade Policy Forum?

First of all let me say how pleased I am to be back. Quickly after being here last month for the mini Doha ministerial that we had, and I want to again extend my congratulations and gratitude to the Prime Minister and my counterpart, commerce minister Anand Sharma, for a very productive, very thoughtful session. But I am specially pleased to be back because now we have the chance to focus on bilateral issues. And the trade policy forum will allow and India regarding what us to hear from business communities both in (the) US is really happening versus what we think is happening. I think that will be critical. But we do believe that building on the progress that we have been making on the bilateral investment treaty is the most important and critical step that we can take. Trade between (the) United States and India tripled over the last decade, but on the other hand our trade with India is less than 10% of what it is with China. And with India representing the fastest growing middle-class economy, we think the good news is there is explosive potential both ways. So we want to look at those high-level issues that we can remove on either side that will help facilitate the growth of trade.

What is the status of the proposed investment treaty with India?

The good news is that we had a very productive meeting here last month...We have made very good progress and now (the) next meeting will come up in early 2010 (and) we hope to build on that and get to a point where we can get this bilateral treaty in place.

Since the Delhi mini ministerial meeting of the WTO in September, what is the progress that has been made on the Doha talks?

Since the Delhi ministerial there have been a couple of developments. One, we had the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in which the world leaders again made a very firm commitment and set as a goal for completion of the Doha development round perhaps as early as 2010. Second, the US has followed through on our commitment and our expressed desire to engage not only within multilateral forums which we have done in Geneva but also the required bilateral talks with a targeted group of countries. We have begun those talks and at least a good productive opening of discussions with both Brazil, and more critically, with India.

But countries are reluctant to negotiate with the US at the WTO level because the Obama administration is yet to receive fast-track negotiating authority from the Congress. And that is also considered to be a lack of sincerity on your part.

I think that’s a red herring. Some countries want to avoid the hard is following give-and-take that is required to bring Doha to conclusion. The US the same path and the same template with the Doha negotiations... that we did with the Uruguay round. In the case of (the) Uruguay round, once we had completed those talks, we went to the Congress, got trade promotion authority approval of the round. We can make the current progress we think we need. Not only for (the) US, more critically, President Obama, perhaps more so than any other president in recent times, very much believes in the core mission of Doha as a development round. He recognises that for the least developed countries, most of them should have access to the US market through our generalised system of preferences. All of the economic studies that have been done project that 60% of (the) world’s GDP (gross domestic product) over the next 15-20 years is going to come from some combination of regions around East Asia and more critically (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries and to some degree from from the Bric South Africa. So whatever we can do to open up those markets not only for developed countries, it will be of benefit to developing countries as well.

But the problem is that countries apprehend that agreements reached with the USTR are not final and because the Congress has overriding power on such treaties, minus the fast-track negotiating authority, it may amend any such agreement.

I am so beyond the point of listening to that sort of (argument). If that was the case, you would never have a multilateral agreement. Every WTO wants to take this back to their country. The US has been country in the able to get approval for a good, balanced, market opening trade agreement from our Congress every time we have sought. We believe that will be the case in this round and rather than worrying about the domestic environment in the US, what we are inviting other countries to do is let’s come to the table, let’s sit down in Geneva in the multilateral fora, do the hard work necessary to bring a closure to negotiations not only in agriculture and and non-agriculture sectors, but in goods, services and rules and start bilateral talks to give us the clarity we need and at that time we will be happy to go to the Congress and seek trade promotion authority. The moment we get that we will be happy to move the deal forward.

You have recently said that you want to fast-track the agreement on services.

We don’t want to fast-track. What I found hard to reconcile, when came to this job, everyone said we have got to do Doha (and) we cannot do I anything different than what we have done--which in our mind is a prescription for failure. We had three successive rounds, and for a lot of reasons, most of it having nothing to do with the US, failed. But we have been governed by this guiding principle that nothing is settled until everything is settled. But all we have done for the most part is focus on agriculture and non-agriculture market access. There really has been no substantial discussion about changes and strengthening on the rules agenda and really no work in services.

We believe that by looking at all these issues horizontally (as well as bilateral talks), it gives the opportunity to have more clarity as to what the market access opportunity (is) for all economies and puts us in a much better position to come to a successful resolution.

But it is considered against the mandate of the Doha negotiations, which says that a sequential approach needs to be followed. First agriculture and non-agricultural market access (Nama) need to be settled and then you negotiate rules and services.

I don’t know where it came from. I believe one definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We have to commit and try a different approach if we really are committed to a successful conclusion of (the) Doha round. I frankly do not understand the fear. We are able to do more than one thing at one time. We are pretty far down the road in agriculture and Nama. To me this is like a natural progression to move forward in our discussions on rules and services as well. And one of the good things to come out of the Delhi ministerial was the recognition that we not only need to have sustained talks on multilateral and bilateral fora but we need to move forward horizontally as well.