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Concern Rising Over Scope of Hong Kong Talks

WTO talks to reduce trade barriers have made little progress recently, prompting officials to lower expectations for Hong Kong meeting next month.

WASHINGTON — World Trade Organization talks to reduce trade barriers, particularly tariffs, have made little progress recently, prompting top officials to lower expectations for a key meeting in Hong Kong next month.

After two days of negotiations among 27 ministers in Geneva, some representatives suggested delaying until spring decisions on key points, such as dates and formulas for cutting tariffs.

Negotiators consider reducing expectations for the meeting a way to keep alive hope that talks will reach a successful conclusion by the end of 2006. The Hong Kong meeting is intended to lay out a framework.

“The convergence of views is that it’s not possible to go for full modalities at Hong Kong,” said European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson during a news conference. “I accept that. But that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t achieve anything.”

Despite a series of proposals from the U.S., the EU and others to open up global agricultural markets, significant differences remain, making movement in other areas more difficult. In addition to easing the flow of agricultural goods, such as cotton, the Doha trade talks are intended to liberalize trade in industrial products like apparel and in services.

“I am sorry to report that we’ve not made the progress that we had hoped to make in order to put together a program for the Hong Kong meeting,”  U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

“We’ve made some progress,” he said. “We have been able to bridge some differences and at least narrow the discussion, but we have not been able to come up with the formulas, or modalities, to be able to negotiate into 2006.”

Portman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns conducted the conference call while flying from Geneva to Burkina Faso, where they were to meet with representatives from the African cotton-producing countries of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin — collectively, the C4 — and Senegal.

Portman said the concerns of the poor West African cotton producers would be best addressed by a successful Doha round. “We can reduce the subsidies and the tariffs these C4 countries are most concerned about,” he said.

The four African cotton nations have led efforts in the Doha talks to scrap trade-distorting cotton subsidies. Duty-free and quota-free access for cotton and the establishment of a transitional support fund for cotton are also priorities of the C4.

After Africa, Portman will continue his world tour to nudge ahead the Doha talks with stops in India, China and South Korea. However, the U.S. isn’t giving up on the Hong Kong meeting next month.

“There can continue to be an ambitious agenda for Hong Kong,” Johanns said on the call. “It does appear to me that we will not make as much progress in Hong Kong as we had hoped for, but having said that, this round does extend through 2006. It would be a grave mistake to declare this round at an end at the Hong Kong meeting.”