By  on November 30, 2005

WASHINGTON — Pakistan Minister of Commerce Humayun Akhtar Khan will take on the role of facilitator in talks to liberalize trade in industrial goods, including apparel and textiles, at a crucial World Trade Organization meeting next month.

The ministerial meeting in Hong Kong was initially intended to lay out a framework to conclude the Doha trade talks by the end of 2006. Trade officials have lowered their expectations for Hong Kong, but are still trying to wrap up talks to lower tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods and services by the end of next year.

Lowering barriers to apparel and textiles trade is Pakistan's "number-one" priority in the Doha talks, said Khan during a briefing with reporters at the Watergate Hotel here Tuesday. As facilitator of the non-agricultural market access, or NAMA, portion of the talks, Khan will play an important role in moving the negotiations along.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "We have an opportunity. Let's be more forthcoming in these negotiations. Let's change past precedent and make the ministerial round a success."

The last ministerial meeting, in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, broke down when African cotton-producing countries walked out in protest of agricultural subsidies in developed nations. Several proposals to cut agricultural subsidies have been presented, though progress has been slow and has delayed forward motion in the industrial goods and services areas.

During his three-day visit in Washington that ended Tuesday and included meetings with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, Khan continued Pakistan's efforts to engage the U.S. in negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement.

One of the stumbling blocks to such a pact would be Pakistan's specialization in textiles and the U.S. proclivity to protect that industry. Over 85 percent of Pakistan's exports to the U.S. are in the apparel and textile area.

"The entire trade and economic relationship between Pakistan and the United States should not depend on the issue of textiles — it should be looked at as a constraint which both the governments should resolve to remove," said Khan, declining to discuss specifics as to how this could be done. "We should look at options as to what we can do in the textile area and other non-textile sectors to move the [free-trade agreement] issue forward."For the year ended Sept. 30, apparel and textile imports from Pakistan rose 7.2 percent to 3.1 billion square meter equivalents, worth $2.8 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Khan said he wasn't sure if the recently inked deal between the U.S. and China that restrains apparel and textile imports through the end of 2008, would help Pakistan.

However, the country is gearing up its industry to compete with China now and in 2009 by encouraging foreign investment and improving infrastructure.

"We'll try our best," he said. "I think China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan would be major players."

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