Clock ticking as WTO meeting fights to strike deal
Stephen Green (L), British minister for trade and investment talks to WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo prior to the plenary session of the 9th World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting in Nusa Dua on December 4, 2013
New World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevedo of Brazil is pushing for agreement on a modest package of measures at a conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
He hopes a limited Bali accord can buy the organisation time for a future kick-start of its larger "Doha Round" of global negotiations aimed at stripping away trade barriers.
The main hurdle to emerge in Bali is India's insistence that it be allowed to stockpile and subsidise grain for its millions of hungry poor.
Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma has rejected calls for compromise but indicated he had no plans to break off the talks.
"I'm very much here," he told reporters.
The United States and others say India's policy violates WTO rules on subsidies and fear the grain could enter markets, skewing world prices.
Ministers have warned that failure to reach a compromise on that and other issues in Bali could be the nail in the coffin for the WTO's larger agenda of freeing up trade through the Doha Round.
The Doha effort was launched in Qatar in 2001 to liberalise trade and establish globally binding rules fair to both rich and poor countries.
But protectionist disputes, particularly between the industrialised and developing worlds, have repeatedly frustrated the ambitious effort.
Top officials negotiated past midnight on Thursday.
Talks were expected to stretch well past the four-day conference's originally scheduled Friday afternoon close, the WTO said.
French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said Thursday India may be held responsible if the conference fails.
Sharma denied New Delhi was holding up an international deal for domestic political reasons. The ruling Congress party faces tough elections next year.
"No, we are trying to get justice for the poor people and the hungry people of the world," he said.
A modest list of measures relating to agricultural subsidies, simplification of customs procedures and policies to aid least-developed countries has been put to ministers in Bali.
It is hoped an agreement can keep Doha on life-support.
Azevedo has said that, without an agreement, the WTO risks being rendered obsolete by the rise of alternative regional pacts between major trading nations.
These include the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) spearheaded by Washington. TPP negotiators will meet in Singapore this weekend as they work to hammer out a deal.
Azevedo said such pacts cannot protect the interests of the developing world's masses of poor -- a key WTO mission.
New Delhi is demanding it be made exempt from any WTO challenges over its food policies indefinitely. The Bali package would limit the exemption period.
US opposition to India's demand was "hypocritical", said Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, citing Washington's own huge support for American farmers.
"The US is calling India out for its food security programme even though India has 10 times the beneficiaries, provides less than one-quarter the food, and spends one-sixth the amount per person," he wrote in a commentary circulated in Bali.
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