Asean voices hope for Lao's WTO membership

His Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Brunei's Minister of Foreign Affairs & Trade, yesterday morning expressed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (Asean) hope that one of its members, the People's Democratic Republic of Lao, would soon become a full member of the World Trade Organisation.

In a 'sabda', which was delivered during the 7th WTO Ministerial Conference at the Centre International de Conferences in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday, His Royal Highness spoke on the importance of the WTO's principles, rules and decision-making approach that will help small countries ensure that things are done fairly and their voices heard.

"Taking decisions by consensus means that we have a say in those decisions," His Royal Highness said, adding that the WTO has provided excellent help to Asean countries, both directly and indirectly.

"Without this, we would have found it very hard even to set our economic priorities, let alone achieve them."

As Asean marches towards attaining a level of regional integration by 2015, His Royal Highness conceded that the 10-member organisation faces a difficult job together.

"But the fact that nine of us are members of the (WTO) organisation is a great advantage," said His Royal Highness. "We hope that very soon the Lao People's Democratic Republic will also become a full member."

Meanwhile, the German press agency, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), reported that WTO Chief Pascal Lamy kicked off the WTO's first ministerial meeting in four years on Monday with a warning that time was "running out" to conclude a new global trade deal.

While trade negotiations are not on the agenda of the three-day gathering in Geneva, the stalled global trade round is likely to play a major role, following a call by world leaders for an agreement on the issue by the end of 2010.

But in his opening remarks to the meeting, Lamy said the ministers were facing "the moment of truth" telling them they would have to decide whether the 2010 deadline would be met.

"Time," the WTO director-general said, "is running out," adding that there were "still hard negotiations" ahead if the 153-member organisation was going to sign off on a trade deal.

The meeting in Switzerland comes a decade after a WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle aimed at driving forward global free trade was engulfed by violent protests.

The WTO member states represent about 95 per cent of total global trade. Ministers last met 2005 in Hong Kong. But a gathering scheduled for 2007 was postponed because of lack of progress on the trade round launched in Doha in 2001.

This week's conference is being held amid signs that global trade is recovering from its biggest contraction since the Great Depression with ministers attending the Geneva summit already stressing the role played by trade in helping to haul the world economy out of recession.

In the run-up to the opening of the meeting, developing countries released a statement calling for the ministers to take "urgent action" so as to forge ahead with the Doha trade round.

"There is an urgent need to translate political statements into concrete engagement in Geneva in order to accomplish the shared objective of concluding the round in 2010," said the developing nations which included several of the world's leading emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico.

Their call is likely to be echoed during the Geneva meeting in the coming days, where trade ministers are expected to reaffirm their commitment to meeting the deadline to sign off on the new trade deal next year.

But with negotiations over a new global trade deal poised to enter their ninth agonising year, the ministers will be looking for clear signs from US President Barack Obama's administration on whether it is prepared to provide fresh impetus to the stalled global trade talks.

However, in a statement ahead of the meeting Obama's top trade official Ron Kirk insisted that the US was committed to hammering out a global trade deal.

"The United States engages with other economies and plays a leadership role at the World Trade Organization in order to boost American exports and grow the well-paid jobs Americans want and need," said Kirk.

Underscoring the sense of frustration surrounding the sometimes acrimonious global trade negotiations, some trade analysts have suggested that the WTO should scale back its hopes for the agreement and instead try to reach a less ambitious accord.

"The very fact that Doha is not on the agenda shows that a deal is not in sight," said Romain Benicchio, a trade specialist with the British charity group Oxfam.

While officials have pointed to the consensus that has already been reached in negotiations in key trade areas that would ultimately form a new agreement, a key farm trade lobby group expressed disappointment at the lack of progress on the trade talks.

In a statement released in Geneva, ministers from the 19-member Cairns Group ministers said they were "disappointed with the limited progress in resolving or narrowing differences" on farm trade issues. - Borneo Bulletin (2nd December 2009)