Doing what was expected of them, Pacific Rim ministers closed ranks yesterday and demanded fresh efforts to put derailed world trade talks back on track.
The call was largely rhetorical.
The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum include countries that clashed bitterly in Cancun, Mexico, last month, causing the collapse of a conference deemed crucial for completing the so-called Doha round of market-opening talks by the end of next year.
APEC's trade and foreign ministers said in the draft of a statement to be issued later in the day in Thailand's capital that flexibility and political will from all sides were urgently needed to revive the negotiations.
"This is a baby step," said one Western trade official.
Still, ministers took heart from the cohesiveness shown by APEC, which accounts for 60 percent of world output, and expressed hope that it would encourage the negotiating flexibility that was absent at the WTO conference.
"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.
The Cancun talks collapsed after countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific rejected a demand from the EU, 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 US$300 billion a year in aid that rich nations pay their farmers.
More than a month on from Cancun, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told WTO Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi that it was time for negotiators to stop their hand-wringing and take a hands-on approach, a US official said.
In a step that US officials said was significant, APEC ministers reached the broad consensus that negotiations should resume on the basis of a compromise text drafted in Cancun by the chair of the conference, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez.
Although that document 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.
The talks collapsed before their confidence could be tested.
But US and Australian officials stood by that judgment on yesterday and Vaile said he hoped all 146 WTO members would agree to proceed on the basis of the Derbez text when trade envoys meet in December in Geneva, the home of the trade watchdog.
"Hopefully a lot of the African countries and the EU and others over time will agree with that, but there isn't much time left," Vaile said.
EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said on Tuesday that 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.
The collapse of the Cancun talks dealt a grievous blow to the WTO, the guardian of multilateral trade rules that economists credit for explosive growth in world incomes since World War II.
Analysts warned that the upshot would be a proliferation of regional and one-on-one free-trade pacts that would create a bewildering maze of preferential benefits for the signatories and penalise the countries excluded.
Sure enough, even as they mouth warm words about the need to revive the Doha round, ministers are using the APEC meeting to launch, or in some cases complete, an array of bilateral deals.
Vaile said he hoped later on Saturday to conclude an Australian-Thai pact.
US President George W. Bush is expected to announce next week the start of talks with Thailand.
For its part, Japan is racing against the clock to bridge differences, mainly over pork tariffs, that are holding up a deal with Mexico and has said it would also like to launch talks soon with South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
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