Expectations were low for the just-completed meeting of 149 trade ministers from around the world in Hong Kong. Analysts -- and even some government officials -- cautioned against expecting much coming out of the meeting, the latest in a series of attempts to provide momentum to the Doha Round of international trade negotiations, now at least a year behind the original target for their completion.
Expectations were low, and they were met, especially if you are John Engler, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), who complained that tough decisions on reducing trade barriers to manufactured goods were not made at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Hong Kong. "Basically the ministers just kicked the can down the road and pushed the tough decisions out to April 2006," said Engler. Among other items, the NAM wanted to see the meeting make real progress on cutting tariffs and lowering non-tariff trade barriers. "Basically the WTO ministers are leaving us with four more months of wandering around the desert without a compass," Engler asserted. "Manufacturing goods are 75% of world trade, and we need a realization that cutting industrial trade barriers is an essential part of a comprehensive Doha agreement."
However, the mid-December meeting was not a do-nothing gathering, and the Doha Round, named after the capital of Qatar where it was launched in November 2001, is not dead. The trade ministers set April 30, 2006 as the date for completing the outline of a trade agreement and yearend 2006 as the time for wrapping-up the round. They agreed to eliminate agricultural export subsidies by 2013 and to increase the number of products from developing countries that can enter the U.S. and other developed-country markets duty-free and quota-free. The latter two are particularly significant because decided and often highly emotional disagreement on agricultural issues as well as the wide divide between economically developing and developed nations had threatened to make Hong Kong a failure, as they had previously in Seattle and Cancun. What's more, "Hong Kong heightened pressure on the European Union to move further in opening up access to its agricultural market, which is an absolute prerequisite to moving ahead," said NAM's Engler. "We all know the path to cutting manufactured goods barriers goes through agriculture."
Engler is correct to say there's "a lot of heavy lifting ahead." As U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman indicated at the end of the Hong Kong meeting, there's the need for more market access in agriculture, a reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers in manufacturing, and new rules for trade in services. There are investment and intellectual property issues yet to be resolved as well. There is no assurance that the Doha Round will be completed with all the items on its ambitious agenda agreed upon.
Some of the hard-lining that continues to go on among the 149 WTO members is posturing. Very few nations bargain from positions of weakness, especially when the stakes are so high. But nearly a dozen trade negotiating rounds since the late-1940s under the WTO and the GATT have also changed the trading world, making it both more sophisticated and complicated. "This conference made it clear that there is a consensus among countries rich and poor, North and South, [and] large and small that more open trade is the road to prosperity. This is an important consensus because there are tough decisions to make," said U.S. Trade Representative Portman on Dec. 19.