Many analysts are still pessimistic about the outlook of the Doha Round of global trade negotiations, despite recent positive signs.
Following a mini-ministerial meeting held between September 3 and 4 in New Delhi, senior officials of key World Trade Organization (WTO) members agreed here on Tuesday on a work plan aimed at pushing forward the long-stalled negotiations in the next few months, which was claimed as a Doha Round breakthrough.
But many analysts see these positive signs as superficial, as the tough issues that have blocked the talks since their launch in 2001 are still unresolved and key WTO members are not moving their positions. The issues involve farm tariffs and subsidies as well as industrial market access.
The meeting in New Delhi, which was attended by more than 30 trade ministers, reiterated a WTO goal to conclude the whole round of talks by the end of 2010.
As a follow-up to that meeting, senior officials from major WTO members gathered in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday, and they managed to map out a detailed plan for negotiations in the next three months, trade sources said. The senior officials also pledged to reconvene in Geneva in October, November and December to advance a plan, the contents of which have not yet been disclosed. The re-engagement of senior officials in the process is certainly encouraging, given the fact that the Geneva talks had been restricted to low-level technical contacts since a failed ministerial meeting in July 2008.
But what's important is for the officials, and even ministers, to resolve the key issues in farm trade and industrial market access. Otherwise, the overall Doha Round talks - which also include negotiations on trade in services and other areas - will not progress substantially, analysts say.
The attitude of the United States is considered crucial for any real breakthrough. But it seems the Obama administration is focused more on domestic issues, such as the financial crisis and health care reform.
The rise of protectionist sentiment due to the economic crisis also makes it harder for the US administration to make concessions in the Doha Round, which aims for further trade opening.
In addition, the Doha Round is a multilateral process. All the 153 WTO members participate to ensure that the talks are transparent, and all members, big and small, are equal.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk has repeatedly stressed that Washington prefers bilateral negotiations, particularly with major developing countries like India, Brazil and China, so that their concessions in industrial market access can be ensured.
"What I would say to you is we believe that (bilateral talks) are the best for nations to move beyond public posturing into the real hardline negotiations that are necessary in order to bring Doha to a conclusion," Kirk told a press conference in New Delhi on September 4.
However, key WTO members have shown little receptiveness to bilateral talks so far.
The author is a Xinhua writer.