ASIA PACIFIC: APEC summit fails to revive stalled WTO trade talks

Issue 

BY EVA CHENG

Created in 1989 to help break Third World resistance to the Uruguay Round of trade talks, the 21-country Asia Pacific Economic and Cooperation (APEC) forum plunged into near irrelevance in 1997 when the economic crisis hit Asia.

But this hadn't stopped its key leaders from continuing to hold an annual summit and putting on a costume parade at the end of each year, during which they make grandiloquent statements with little substance.

The latest APEC summit, held in Los Cabos in Mexico on October 25-27, again failed to deliver much substance.

The Asian crisis was hardly over in 1998 when APEC's plight was made worse. That year, Japan refused to take part in reducing barriers to fish and forest-product imports — a move crucial to the APEC trade liberalisation agenda. This "non-cooperation" became more widespread a year later, prompting APEC to "transfer" its entire market opening program to the 140-member World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Since then, APEC's fortunes have been even more closely tied to that of the WTO. Meanwhile, the latter's "trade liberalisation" agenda also suffered a major setback at its Seattle meeting in 1999.

Even though the WTO was able to kick-start the Doha Round of trade talks in November last year, lately some of the crucial discussions — especially on the removal of agricultural subsidies — have stalled. The APEC summit in Mexico would have been a timely opportunity to help to turn that around. But it failed to be of any help.

Japan refused to offer any concessions on the issue of agricultural subsidies at the Mexico meeting.

The US did offer in July to reduce its agricultural subsidies. But ironically, this offer came only two months after Washington announced a new US$249 billion six-year subsidy scheme, in clear contradiction to the "Doha principles" proclaimed only months earlier.

The bulk of APEC's members are from Asia and they have little influence in tackling the major stumbling block on the subsidy question — the European Union. Not only has the 15-member EU refused to budge on agricultural subsidies, it has turned the pressure up on Asia and other Third World WTO members to get them to agree to the inclusion of a range of "new issues" in the Doha Round.

Investment, competition and government procurement are the key "new" areas that the EU is trying to include in future trade rules. The EU tried to use its once-in- two-year Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM) with 10 Asian countries in late September in Copenhagen to extract more support for its trade negotiations agenda, with no apparent success.

Meanwhile, the WTO is in danger of missing a few crucial deadlines that it has set for the Doha Round which it was scheduled to complete by late 2004:

Agreement on the framework ("modalities" in WTO-speak) for the agricultural negotiations is due next March.

Members are to complete making their initial offers on market opening on the service sector by next March.

Agreement on the modalities for the non-agricultural negotiations is due between March and June 2003.

From Green Left Weekly, November 6, 2002.

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