The two-day mini-ministerial meeting in New Delhi of trade ministers and officials from 35 countries has broadly agreed to conclude the Doha round by 2010. Trade negotiations will resume in right earnest in Geneva soon. Chief negotiators and their officials will prepare an agenda for action. It might be premature to claim a “breakthrough” on the basis of these outcomes which essentially cover the process rather than the substance of the trade talks. The course of negotiations in the past suggests that substance guides procedures. Although there have been no high-level ministerial meetings since July 2008, trade officials working at the WTO Secretariat were refining the texts of the drafts on agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA). These two have remained contentious and the new texts released in December will form the basis for the forthcoming meetings. For India, an important outstanding issue is to bring negotiations on services on a par with those on agriculture and NAMA. There is very little indication that services negotiations will move to the centre stage any time soon. There ought to be some satisfaction over India taking the initiative in restarting the talks. The mini-ministerial meeting of July last year ended abruptly following differences between India and the United States over the special safeguards mechanism for agricultural products.
Given the Doha round’s chequered history over almost eight years, it would be naïve to expect an early wrap up of the talks. Moreover, even the December texts on agriculture and NAMA have a number of highly divisive issues, and any one of those could be a deal-breaker. For instance, in agriculture the design of the special safeguard mechanism that will satisfy all is yet to be arrived at. A major area of discord in NAMA is the demand that India and China should be required to adhere to sector agreements for harmonisation or elimination of tariffs. Obviously, the negotiations in Geneva would have to focus on these contentious issues immediately. The revival of the Doha round talks is taking place at a time when the global economy is coming out of a severe recession. But with unemployment continuing to remain at very high levels, there has been a trend towards protectionism — though mostly within the parameters of the WTO rules — in many industrial countries. There is a realisation that a completed Doha round will strengthen the multilateral trading system and spur freer, orderly trade. While the efforts to revive the talks are to be welcomed, one needs to guard against raising expectations too high at this stage.