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Officials scramble for last-minute deal at WTO

Publication Date : 06-12-2013


Last minute efforts by negotiators to reach a compromise on the agriculture issue at the ninth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Meeting could be in vain, with talks reaching their final day on Friday.

India, which has been blamed for holding WTO negotiations on agriculture in a stalemate, was still engaged in tense negotiation with the US, mediated by Indonesia and WTO director general Roberto Azevedo, late on Thursday.

“A face-saving deal is a must. Nobody wants to leave Bali empty handed. But the progress remains uncertain,” said a senior Indonesian official.

Speculation is rife that members would agree on eight out of 10 negotiated packages, leaving the farm subsidy issues out for further negotiation.

India’s programme of stockpiling subsidised grain and rice to ensure cheap food for its people is considered to have threatened the progress of negotiations.

Trading partners fear the program contravenes WTO rules, which limit farm subsidies, and there are concerns India could misuse the policy to export food at cheaper prices, thus distorting the market.

Any failure to revive the 12-year-old Doha round of talks would see the WTO lose credibility in the eyes of its members.

Negotiators have so far only concluded negotiations on the least-developed countries (LDCs) and development packages, with some countries only willing to accept agreements bundled with two other deals.

Presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah reiterated on Thursday that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was “still considering” calling Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a last-resort effort by the host.

Despite the President’s plan, which is likely aimed at saving face, sources with knowledge of the lobbying taking place at the four-day meeting are losing hope of achieving a deal, with India maintaining its stance on the agriculture issue.

Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma refused to respond to journalists’ questions about Yudhoyono’s plan to contact Singh.

He said both Indonesian and Indian leaders had always been “on the same page” and that the poor “must not be hungry, and whatever agreement is reached in the WTO should be fair to our country and poor people”.

“There has to be a fair and balanced agreement,” Sharma said. “It is better to have no agreement than a bad agreement.”

In an interim solution proposed by developed countries, developing countries would have only four years to run their food security programs without breaching a 10 percent limit on their agricultural output.

But India still objected to the four-year time frame and was seeking commitment from all WTO members, including developed nations, to link the interim solution to a permanent one, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan said.

Analysts’ expectations were low, even if Yudhoyono lobbied Singh, citing India’s strong stance and domestic political influence.

“[Singh] has many domestic stakeholders to deal with ahead of India’s general election next year if he says ‘yes’ [to Yudhoyono],” Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) economist Djisman Simanjuntak said.

Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Center for World Trade Studies director Riza Noer Arfani said Indonesia, as well as other countries, should be worried if India maintained its position until late on Thursday.

Yudhoyono and Gita, he said, “would by then need a trump card to lobby India”.

Bagus BT Saragih contri-buted to this report


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