If Not Soon, Then When?; Time Running Out On Trade Talks

U.S. trade chief says deal needs to be reached within 6 to 8 months.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - The U.S. trade chief warned Friday that WTO talks to liberalize global trade would be suspended for several years if there was no breakthrough over the next six to eight months.

''We are going to try very, very hard between now and the next 6-8 months to see if we can get a breakthrough. If we can't get a breakthrough (by) January, February, March...it's going to be several years before we get a breakthrough,'' U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters.

Negotiations in the five-year long World Trade Organization talks were suspended indefinitely last month largely due to an impasse over how much to cut barriers in farm trade such as tariffs and subsidies.

The entire process is rapidly running out of time because President Bush's authority to ''fast track'' the trade deal - enabling U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments - runs out in mid-2007.

Schwab, speaking after bilateral talks with Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, said they both agreed that there was ''no point in restarting the Doha Round unless there is something substantive, a serious outcome.'' She did not elaborate.

Named after the Qatari capital where negotiations began five years ago, the Doha round of WTO talks aims to forge a global trade treaty that will lower trade barriers across all sectors, with particular emphasis on helping poorer countries develop their economies through export growth.

Schwab, who was in Kuala Lumpur this week to meet with trade ministers of the 10-member ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, will attend next month's Cairns Group meeting of 18 agricultural exporting countries in Australia, a platform from which Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile had proposed to restart the Doha round.

But a breakthrough seems unlikely as European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who has criticized Australia for taking the U.S. side in WTO talks, will not be attending.

Vaile acknowledged that progress at the Cairns meeting would be challenging.

''I haven't picked up any movement or indication of further flexibility in the key areas that remain to be resolved in the WTO process,'' he said in a telephone link with reporters at Parliament House in Canberra shortly after bilateral talks Friday with Schwab in Kuala Lumpur.

This doesn't ''provoke a lot of confidence that there's going to be an early breakthrough but we need to keep pushing hard on trying to bridge that gap,'' Vaile said.

''The Americans are actively engaging in trying to find and brokering a way forward from here but there still aren't any breakthrough answers on what needs to happen.''

The EU says Washington derailed the Geneva talks by failing to offer deeper cuts in subsidies paid to farmers. The U.S., meanwhile, targeted Brussels' failure to ease access to its agricultural market for foreign goods.

In a joint statement following talks earlier Friday, the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations expressed their ''readiness to make tangible contributions'' to put the Doha round back on track before the end of the year.

''Improved market access and creating new trade flows while ensuring the development dimension are effectively addressed will be the litmus test for success,'' the statement said.