HONG KONG — U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman on Thursday offered some of the world's poorest countries additional access to the American market in the areas of cotton, apparel and textiles as part of an effort to push World Trade Organization talks forward.
The moves gave apparel and textile issues some time in the spotlight, but the larger free-trade agenda remained deadlocked over agriculture. The six-day talks of trade ministers is to end Sunday.
Portman said the U.S. was willing to give cotton from Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad, collectively known as the C4 (Cotton 4 Countries), duty-free access. "We are hopeful to have some kind of resolution this week," he said.
The four West African nations played a key role in the collapse of the last major WTO meeting in Cancún, Mexico, two years ago.
A senior U.S. trade official said the commitment would give the West African nations access to the U.S. market faster than a broader agreement.
Woods Eastland, chairman of the National Cotton Council, expressed concern over the proposal since it is unclear if other major cotton-producing countries, such as China and India, would respond in kind.
"This appears to be unilateral action by the U.S. in what should be multilateral negotiations," Eastland said in a statement. "If improved market access for cotton produced in the truly least developed countries will provide meaningful economic gains, then all cotton-importing countries should be expected to match the reported U.S. proposal."
The European Commission said the U.S. plan was a "step in the right direction, but it is clear more needs to be done."
The EU and the U.S. have been at odds over how much the developed world should cut domestic farm subsidies in the current talks, known as the Doha Round.
The U.S. also has signaled a willingness to extend duty-free and quota-free treatment to goods from the WTO's 32 least developed countries, with some exceptions, such as apparel and textiles from Bangladesh and Cambodia.
"Last year, Bangladesh imports to the United States were $2.5 billion [in] textiles and apparel, that's a 20 percent increase," Portman said.He added that not all of those goods from Bangladesh would necessarily get duty-free access.
"In some of those cases, it's going to be very, very difficult for me to make the argument when obviously Bangladesh is incredibly competitive," Portman said.
Bangladesh gets two-thirds of all of its cotton fabric at subsidized rates from China and is, therefore, able to undercut other countries that might have special relationships and preferential treatment from the U.S., said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition.
Once a certain group is given preferential treatment, others are going to expect it, as well, he said. "Eventually, people are going to say, 'I'm not going to live by some structured system made by bureaucrats in Geneva.'"
Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade and government relations for the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said it appeared Portman was excluding Bangladesh and Cambodia from designation as least developed countries. There are very few areas in which these countries are competitive, she said, adding it would be "a real disappointment to say the LDCs are too successful to get aid."
There also has been some movement on efforts to strike up separate negotiations to cover the apparel and textiles sector.
Turkey's state minister in charge of foreign trade and customs, Kürsad Tüzmen, said his country believes "a sectoral approach leading to harmonization of tariffs by all members would be the most appropriate way to generate new market opportunities."
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