Trade ministers gather in Tokyo on Friday for a three-day meeting to try to step up the pace of flagging global trade talks, beset by failed deadlines and a lack of progress. Only 25 of the 145 members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have been invited to send ministers to the February 14-16 "mini-ministerial". Their task: to thrash out ideas for giving a boost to negotiations, mainly on greater market access in services, industrial goods and the traditionally-thorniest subject of agriculture.
Canada's ambassador to the WTO, Sergio Marchi, who is also the outgoing chairman of the WTO's ruling general council, said on Monday that the informal meeting was "quite timely and comes at a fairly crucial time".
"I think people recognise how important these core issues are to the Doha Development Agenda," he said, referring to the three-year negotiating 'round' launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001.
Negotiators were mandated in Doha to complete the wide-ranging trade talks by end of 2004, but the talks have suffered setbacks recently, namely through failed deals and missed deadlines. The most high-profile was their failure in December to clinch a deal to permit poor countries, unable to manufacture their own pharmaceuticals, to sidestep patents and import generic copies to fight public health scourges.
Hopes for a pact are now pinned on the US' swift acceptance of the latest plan to overcome the deadlock. Delegates should also by now have approved proposals for granting special treatment to developing countries to help them take a more active role in the WTO negotiations. WTO chief Supachai Panitchpakdi on Monday noted that progress was uneven, saying that compared to December, the "overall imbalance" was now "even more noticeable and preoccupying." And with further deadlines fast approaching, notably a key, end-of-March goalpost in the farming negotiations, the Thai official warned against "accumulating unresolved issues".
"The necessary political will to move forward on substance is yet to be seen in most areas and genuine engagement among participants to explore avenues of convergence has not yet materialised," he told the general council.
Agriculture is, of the three slated topics in Tokyo, proving the hardest to advance and the EU and Japan, both heavy farming subsidisers, are bitterly accused by the US and Cairns Group of 18 farming exporters of dragging their feet. The EU and US, both due to take part in the Tokyo event, also differ in their approaches to the WTO process, a US official underscored on Monday. Washington is pushing to open up markets, while Brussels is keen to expand global trade rules into new areas such as environment, investment and competition. The looming threat of possible war in Iraq is not expected to hamper the WTO talks, trade officials, including the WTO director-general, have said.
"I wouldn't give the excuse to perhaps our current state of play to anyone except ourselves," Marchi told reporters on Monday.
Countries from North and South are due to take part in the mini-ministerial, though China and South Africa's ministers will be absent as they have notified the Japanese they are unable to attend. The meeting comes just seven months ahead of the next full ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, which will serve as a mid-term review of the overall round. After the collapse of the 1999 Seattle ministerial amid huge and bitter divergences, Supachai and others have warned against overloading the Cancun agenda. "I thought every minister told us they didn't want a ministerial like Seattle again, and we run the risk of deja vu," Marchi told reporters. "I hope that worries them enough that we begin to take care of the balance of issues and deadlines along the way to Cancun, not just in Cancun," he added.
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