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Fresh move to reopen stalled trade talks

Bangkok, Oct. 18 (Reuters): Doing what was expected of them, Pacific Rim ministers closed ranks on Saturday and demanded fresh efforts to put derailed world trade talks back on track.

The call was more rhetorical than substantive, not least because the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum were on different sides of the deep rich-poor divide that scuppered last month’s trade talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Still, in a sign that the wounds opened in Mexico were starting to heal, trade and foreign ministers called Cancun a missed opportunity and urged all sides to show flexibility and political will to re-energise the negotiations.

Apec hopes the declaration, representing the position of states that account for nearly half of world trade, will rub off on the rest of the 146-member World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“Because of the size and coverage of the Apec economies, it is a powerful message from a powerful voice that this part of the world believes that the opportunity should not be wasted and that the work that was done in Cancun should not be wasted,” Australian trade minister Mark Vaile told reporters.

Trade envoys are due to meet in Geneva, home to the WTO, by December 15 to take stock of the chances of completing the so-called Doha round of market-opening talks by their self-imposed deadline of end of 2004.

Apec trade ministers took the view that the Cancun talks were not a failure but rather a setback in the process.

“Therefore, the experiences gained from the Cancun meeting would serve as valuable lessons for all of us as we continue to move towards a successful completion of the Doha Round,” said Thai commerce minister Adisai Bodharamik.

More than a month on from Cancun, US trade representative Robert Zoellick said it was time for negotiators to stop their hand-wringing and take a hands-on approach to the talks.

He said the statement, issued after a two-day meeting in the Thai capital, carried weight because Apec reflected such a diverse membership. The group includes minnows such as Brunei and Papua New Guinea as well as powerhouses such as Japan and China.

“If a group that diverse can come together with a point of view, it’s quite significant,” Zoellick said.

A very good sign

The Cancun talks collapsed after countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific rejected a demand from the European Union, Japan and others for the Doha round to be widened to include new rules to uphold transparency in the award of government contracts and to fight corruption and red tape.

States were also far apart on farm reform, with developing countries demanding deep cuts in the $300 billion a year in aid that rich nations pay their farmers.

Zoellick and Vaile said the Apec declaration was significant not just because of the political support expressed for the Doha round but also because ministers had agreed that talks should resume on the basis of a compromise text drafted in Cancun by Mexican foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect that this group would agree to the message that we should all work off the Cancun text. That’s a very good sign,” Zoellick said.

Although the Derbez text ultimately proved unacceptable, many diplomats were confident in Cancun that it could have formed the basis for an agreement on the emotional issue of farm subsidies.

“This doesn’t mean that everybody agrees with all the elements of it,” Zoellick added,“but if this is picked up by other countries around the world it gives us a much more solid basis to work from.”

Although Zoellick said he could see a path forward, many trade experts are pessimistic about concluding the Doha round in 2004, when the United States will be distracted by elections and the European Union by the admission of 10 new members.

EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy said on Tuesday the 15-nation bloc was ready to show leadership as long as it was not the only one making concessions.

“You cannot show leadership until you don’t have anything left in your pockets,” Lamy said.

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