Day 5 in Hong Kong — Full Court Press for Results

By December 17, 2005Trade

Daily Updates from Hong KongHere is part six of Frank Vargo’s daily update–from the front lines–in Hong Kong for the Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference:

Saturday evening in Hong Kong. One day left for the WTO Ministerial meeting, and the game is finally in full play. Few decisions are made at Ministerial meetings and negotiating rounds until the final day and a half. And so it is again.

The new draft text of the ministerial decisions (or, as the case too frequently is, “non-decisions”) came out late in the afternoon. Ministers and their staffs will be up all night, and working just about round the clock until the closing bell sometime Sunday to change the text and come out with a final Hong Kong declaration.

Progress, they say, is uneven. Two steps forward, one step backward, right? Alas, there is also a phenomenon known as “one step forward, two steps backward,” and that’s how I feel tonight. Friday I felt pretty good that we would see some guidance from ministers so that the teams negotiating on manufactured goods in the coming months would have a mandate and would know the size of the sandbox in which they were playing.

It looked like we could have a mini-breakthrough in the manufactured goods talks, when it appeared that the new text would describe agreement on a formula that would cut tariffs in industrial countries and developing countries — an approach that looked like it could give us a fighting chance to get some trade barriers down overseas. And we also hoped for reference to sector-by-sector agreements that could zero out tariffs, as well as agreement to negotiate onerous non-tariff barriers.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the printer — somehow that text got left on the cutting room floor — and we are back to the same text we had before the ministerial meeting started. So, at the moment, from the perspective of negotiating on manufactured goods, the ministerial might as well not have happened.

But, wait! The ministerial is not yet over. The NAM has told U.S. negotiators this is really a horrid thing — and they agree. As do the Europeans, the Canadians, the Australians, the Japanese, etc. They all are going to press hard for changes to the text, so it is yet possible that Sunday we will see that the text we wanted has worked its way back into the document. The U.S. team is strong, and I am hopeful they can turn things around.

Why care? Because the Doha Round has been wandering around in the desert aimlessly for years now, and if we are to get a real trade negotiation, the trade ministers have to provide some real guidance, some real limits, some real mandates. To leave Hong Kong with the same limp noodle we had when we got here just isn’t going to fly.

So far, for manufacturers, the Hong Kong Ministerial has been one giant game of “kick the can down the street.” Pushing decisions off for another three months — and giving no guidance to negotiators — is not really going to do anything.

Yesterday I talked about the “trash can count,” measuring how many people liked or disliked the text by how full the trash cans are outside the negotiating rooms. I can tell you, my trash can is overflowing.

But, I still believe in Santa, and maybe — just maybe — there will be something under the tree tomorrow.

Be with me again on Sunday to see if it is something special–or just a lump of coal.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • brian duggan says:

    Thanks for the report. This is a real help to those of us back in DC trying to answer questions from bosses who want to know what’s going on. I’ll look for the next installment. Good luck.