‘Trade talks may be stalled’

Kuala Lumpur, August 26:

The trade ministers of Malaysia and Australia warned today that global trade liberalisation talks in December are likely to be stalled again amid unresolved disputes over farm subsidies.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in Hong Kong will fail unless countries come to a swift consensus on the contentious agricultural sector, Australian trade minister Mark Vaile said during a visit to Malaysia.

“It certainly can stall the process unless the two key issues — market access and the formula for tariff cuts, and greater discipline in the level of domestic support — are addressed and addressed soon,” he told a news conference, “There needs to be progress in agriculture very very quickly. That’s the key to the door to moving ahead with the WTO round.”

The Hong Kong WTO meeting in December is aimed at reducing tariffs and subsidies, and forging a global trade treaty that would take effect in 2006 or early 2007. But meetings last month failed to make significant progress in the key area of farm subsidies, meaning WTO members missed a self-imposed July deadline for an outline deal covering all sectors.

Malaysian trade minister Rafidah Aziz said WTO negotiations have been lax because of the summer holidays in the US and Europe.

“There are many loose ends on the treatment of tariffs, if things do not move fast after the summer recess, then Hong Kong will not see any results,” she said. The WTO’s original plan had been to conclude a new global trade treaty by end of 2004, but a WTO conference in 2003 collapsed amid bickering over agriculture and investment rules.

Vaile and Rafidah, who chaired an earlier bilateral trade committee meeting, said talks between Malaysia and Australia to forge a bilateral free trade deal are in initial stages, but the two sides aim to complete negotiations by mid-2006.

“We are hopeful that it will (signed) during the course of 2006,” Vaile said. The two nations agreed in April to launch talks on a free trade pact that is estimated to be worth an extra $5billion for the Malaysian economy by 2027 and $1.5 billion to Australia, according to a joint government feasibility study.

The move marks a warming of relations between the two countries, and reflects Australia’s plan to strengthen ties to Southeast Asia.