A worker prepares the venue ahead of the ninth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, yesterday.
GENEVA/JAKARTA: Crisis is the natural state of world trade negotiations. But this week will be different.
Ministers meeting in the Indonesian resort of Bali from today until Friday will decide the fate of the World Trade Organisation, with two possible outcomes: a global trade agreement, the first since the WTO was created in 1995, or a failure that kills off the Doha round of trade talks and casts the WTO into obsolescence.
The 159 WTO members have pushed the crisis to the brink by failing to finalise the text of a deal in Geneva, leaving a Swiss cheese of a draft after marathon talks that WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo finally halted at 7am last Monday.
Azevedo had repeatedly said the text must be settled in Geneva and there could be no negotiations in Bali. Ministers indulging in political point-scoring and rhetorical grandstanding are thought unlikely to succeed where their Geneva-based trade negotiators have failed.
“Will they or won’t they negotiate in Bali? Some will try but the recalcitrants will hold out unless they get overruled by their heads of government,” said Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the Swiss University of St Gallen.
“For that to happen, enough prime ministers and presidents are going to have to be convinced to pick up the phone and call their peers and, given what little is left on the table, why should they bother?”
The WTO has already significantly lowered its sights since a decade of Doha talks broke down, forcing the body to focus on a much less ambitious set of reforms. The agenda for the Bali meeting has already suffered one big loss: talks on free trade in technology goods, slated for agreement at the meeting, collapsed last month after China insisted on a large list of exemptions.
But Azevedo has refused to abandon the deal on the table, working the phones to narrow bilateral differences.
“The remaining obstacles are very few, well-defined and not difficult to solve if we have political engagement and political will,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday. “That is what we are looking to ministers in Bali this week to provide. A successful outcome is still possible.”
Supporters say the deal would be felt globally, with most impact in the poorest countries, since it would set standards for handling the cross-border shipment of goods, making customs authorities help instead of hinder business.
Estimates of the value to the world economy vary, with some as high as $1 trillion. Experts say it would be much more important than abolishing import tariffs globally, since bureaucracy and opaque rules are a bigger brake on trade.
Bayu Krisnamurthi, Indonesia’s deputy trade minister, said last Wednesday that there were only four issues to be settled.