The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade ministers who met in Big Sky, Montana, today finally took a hard-nosed look at the state of the World Trade Organization Doha negotiations and admitted that what the United States has been saying for several years: the gaps in expectations for opening new market opportunities around the world are unbridgeable in the current context.  As Ambassador Kirk noted, “we are not in good shape.”  

We welcome this recognition of reality that should help the WTO move forward in a constructive way, rather than continuing to chase its tail in a desperate hope that given enough time the pieces will magically fall into place. 

So the question now becomes what to do with the pieces of Doha that aren’t broken.  We hope that in this period of reflection WTO Members will give serious consideration to moving ahead in concluding negotiations in areas that can garner consensus. One of these issues should be the trade facilitation negotiations aimed at simplifying and speeding procedures for getting goods through customs formalities.

In an age when a large portion of exports are delivered in hours by air rather than weeks or months by sea, the length of time and costs of customs clearance procedures needs to be reduced so components can get to manufacturers and finished products to customers more rapidly. This is not a zero-sum negotiation that involves mercantilist concessions; it is classic win-win. 

Ministers should also give greater consideration to so-called plurilateral agreements that don’t require every WTO country to sign on, such as the Information Technology Agreement. It should be expanded to provide zero-duty treatment for more high-tech products. The existing agreement dating from 1997 has been very successful and reduced costs for manufacturers that rely on information technology products to enhance their competitiveness. There could be other plurilateral agreements that could garner sufficient support–perhaps environmental goods and services.

The WTO is a strong and vital organization and its value should not be assessed on what happens with the Doha negotiations. An organization that deals forthrightly with the situation it faces will be a strong one. 

As is said, the first step to recovery is the recognition that there is a problem.

Stephen Jacobs is senior director of international business policy, National Association of Manufacturers.  

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