Australia: minister warns world trade talks could be set back more than five years

Failure at a World Trade Organization summit in Hong Kong next month could set back the cause of global trade liberalization by more than five years, Australia's trade minister warned Sunday.

Trade dominated the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' forum in South Korea last week just three weeks before a key WTO meeting in Hong Kong.

U.S. President George W. Bush and other Pacific Rim leaders ended their annual summit Saturday with an indirect challenge to European countries to help revive global free-trade negotiations by cutting their hefty farm subsidies.

The Hong Kong summit on Dec. 13-18 aims to resolve many of the issues that have been blocking the Doha round of trade talks named for the Qatari capital where it was launched in 2001.

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile said the Hong Kong meeting was not doomed despite an apparent deadlock on the subject of farm subsidies.

"They're not doomed to failure but what we need to focus on is that we've got about six months of real time left in this negotiation in the Doha round," Vaile told Ten Network television.

"And it's quite significant that the leaders of the 21 APEC economies that represent about 60 percent of the global economy are saying to those countries that are still dragging their feet in this regard that we've got to get on with it. We can't miss this opportunity," he added.

Vaile said the WTO could not afford a repeat of the disastrous ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003. That meeting collapsed in disarray and acrimony, paralyzing the global trade body for months.

"If we miss the boat this time, if we don't build on what we've done so far when we get to the meeting in Hong Kong and then try and conclude the actual negotiations in this round by the middle of 2006, it will be five to seven years before we get back to it and that would be an abrogation of the responsibility of the developed world ... in assisting the developing nations of the world," he said.

Australia, a major agriculture exporter, has joined calls for the European Union and Japan to lower their agricultural trade barriers to match a U.S. offer.

The United States offered a 60 percent cut in what it can currently offer to its farmers in subsidies.

The European Union has offered to reduce its highest agricultural tariff rates by 60 percent and its average tariffs by 46 percent, reported AP. P.T.

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