APEC fails to kick start stalled WTO trade round
BY EVA CHENG
Anti-capitalist protesters who succeeded in Seattle last November-December in helping block the launch of a new round of global trade negotiations under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) can proudly register their first full year of success in holding their line on the battle ground.
Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the meeting of 21 Pacific rim national states through which the US has been pushing its "free trade"/WTO agenda in Asia since 1993, failed miserably at its November 15-16 annual leaders' summit in Brunei to achieve even the bare minimum. It couldn't get all members to pay even lip-service to back the call for a new round of global "free trade" talks.
Superficially, all APEC members did claim that they want a new round. But the catch is what kind of round. What to include or drop out from the agenda has become crucial. And on this very point, there was a bun fight in Brunei during the APEC summit in what appeared to be a smaller-scale replay of what happened in Seattle.
Although in its end-of-meeting statement, the APEC leaders loosely express the wish that such an agenda "should be formulated and finalised as soon as possible in 2001 and that a [WTO] round be launched in 2001", the battle over the negotiation agenda is far from over.
Battle over agenda
Meeting reporters after that statement was released, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a vocal spokeperson of the opposition group, said: "If there is no agenda, how can we have a meeting? It [the launch] is conditional on having an agenda". He stressed Malaysia wasn't alone in this fight.
The battle over the agenda actually started at Seattle where the imperialist countries had set two strategic objectives for the new trade round. They wanted to make sure that the agenda included those areas, such as investment, competitive policy and government procurement, which they managed to put on the agenda during and since the 1986-1994 Uruguay Round of trade negotiations but which weren't dealt with to their satisfaction.
They also wanted to extend the WTO discipline regime to new areas such as industrial tariffs, the environment and labour standards, some of which only have flimsy connections with trade. To bring more areas in would mean more effective domination of the Third World economies by the First World. Disguised by superficially equitable obligations and rights applicable to all its 139 members, the WTO in fact works totally in favour of the rich countries.
Under the WTO, violators of rules are punishable by economic sanctions, but how punitive will be the sanctions of a weak economy on a powerful competitor? Moreover, the powerful economies have the luxury of observing the rules only selectively to suit their needs.
Centuries of colonial plunder and unequal exchange with the imperialist countries have left most Third World countries with a legacy of industrial underdevelopment which they are still struggling to overcome. Since its 1995 formation, the WTO has been a tool of the imperialist countries for maintaining the unequal world economic order created by the developed capitalist countries.
Naked plunder is no longer readily acceptable to public opinion in the developed countries, so the politicians, economists and journalists who work for the corporate oligarchies that dominate the rich countries have pumped out myths to legitimise the WTO role — such as the claim that "free trade" will bring faster economic growth and therefore a bigger cake from which all countries will have a bigger slice.
In reality, by attaching the "trade related" prefix to an ever extending list of social activities, the corporate oligarchies in the North hope to win public acceptance for their drive break down the limited protective measures had to grant during the Cold War with the "Second World" (the post-capitalist societies of the Soviet bloc) to their former colonies in the South. Opposition to this was one of the reasons why the representatives of the South revolted at Seattle.
These representatives were also deeply angered by the naked hypocrisy revealed by the rich countries in technically complying rather than honouring the spirit of the agreements sealed under the Uruguay Round. Under these agreements both the First and Third World countries were to gradually reduce their tariff and non-tariff barriers such that as a country becomes less protected from imports, it would — at least in theory — be compensated by a much bigger overseas market for its exports.
But for most Third World countries such promises were far from delivered. For example, all the import quotas in the rich countries on textiles and clothing, key exports from Third World countries, were supposed to be removed over 10 years. But six years on, the rich countries have effectively only relaxed their restrictions on non-essential items rather than the ones that count most to the Third World exporters. They have also increasingly resorted to anti-dumping and countervailing measures, which were meant for exceptional circumstances only, as regular non-tariff barriers.
Export subsidies and other domestic support for agricultural products are predominantly a First World practice because poor countries can't afford them and now, under the WTO, are not allowed to introduce them. The existing subsidies will be kept, though they must be gradually reduced over time.
These subsidies have traditionally been massive, so much so that even after on average 36% reduction in the last few years, they are still at very high levels. In the US, for example, the subsidies for sugar remain at 244% and 174% for peanuts while in the European Union, they are 213% for beef and 168% for wheat. In Japan, they are 353% for wheat, and in Canada, 360% for butter and 236% for eggs. In the face of such subsidies, it is impossible for ill-equipped, under-resourced Third World farmers to compete in the "global market" against the giant food corporations of the First World?
That's why at Seattle, many Third World countries insisted that these "implementation issues" be reviewed and corrected before they would even consider negotiations in new areas. But their concerns were pushed aside.
At the Brunei summit, the rich countries were trying to sell again a new WTO round with their agenda. It was again rejected. Public resistance in the underdeveloped countries of Asia has been mounting to the devastating consequences of "free trade" — which is always to the advantage of the most developed producers — since the 1997-98 economic crisis. Such pressure has made it more difficult for Third World governments to accept the imperialist agenda unquestioningly.
APEC dealt another blow
Of the imperialist powers, the United States has been most aggressive in pushing its "free trade" agenda at APEC summits. Washington's mid-1990s push for APEC members to "fast track" trade liberalisation for 15 industries was dealt a blow in 1998 when Japan refused to open up its national market for two (forest and fish products) of the nine sectors scheduled for completion that year. As a result none of the others opened theirs.
The remaining six sectors were to be liberalised by the time of the 1999 APEC summit, but that again failed, prompting the APEC leaders to "transfer" the discussion on all 15 sectors to the WTO for consideration at the Seattle meeting.
As the highest level international trade gathering since Seattle, this year's APEC summit had the mission to kick start the still sagging WTO new trade round. Not only did that fail, but APEC was confronted by the emergence of a string of bilateral trade agreements from among its membership, some of which, such as Singapore's bilateral trade pact with Australia, were unveiled just before the Brunei summit.
Singapore had already signed a similar trade deal with New Zealand last year and is finalising another with Japan, and has similar talks underway with South Korea, Mexico and Canada.
Apart from negotiating a similar pact with Hong Kong, New Zealand has joined hands with Singapore and Chile in recent years in pushing for a broader deal which would include Australia and the US to form the so-called "Pacific Five" (P5). Cool to the idea before, Australian trade minister Mark Vaile has now said the P5 idea is "worthy of consideration".
The WTO/APEC dream of multilateral agreement is being shaken by this stream of bilateral deals.
These countries pushing these bilateral deals quickly claimed that these would be "WTO consistent". But by definition bilateral deals are exclusive of other parties, and therefore run counter to the WTO's "universalist" agenda.
However, all this is good news for those who oppose the imperialist countries' plan to reassert their economic tyranny over the Third World, a plan which is being implemented under the cover of "multilateralism".
Helped by the unfolding protest movements in different parts of the world, more and more people are refusing to buy the lies used by the imperialist rulers to hide their true agenda. But there's no room for complacency. The corporate globalisers may have been temporarily slowed since Seattle, but they are determined to keep pushing their agenda. The new movement against global corporate tyranny will therefore need to prepare for a new round of battles.