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Trading Powers Meet To Break WTO Impasse

World Trade Organization trade talks stalled as developing countries, led by China and India, called for wider protection of their fragile domestic agricultural sectors.

GENEVA (Kyodo) -- About 30 key trading powers held a ministerial meeting Tuesday to try to break the impasse in the free trade talks under the World Trade Organization as the risk of collapse in the negotiations has reemerged with the United States and two major fast-growing economies locking horns over agricultural safeguard issues.

The trade talks in Geneva have been stalled as developing countries, led by China and India, called for wider protection of their domestic fragile agricultural sectors under a so-called special safeguard mechanism, while developed countries like the United States opposed the move.

The special safeguard mechanism would allow developing countries to increase tariffs on agricultural produce in the event of an import surge to fend off cheap farm imports from rich countries backed by farm subsidies.

During the meeting, ministers were briefed about the discussions on the agricultural safeguard in a separate gathering held earlier by seven major trading powers through early Tuesday in a bid to ensure transparency in the negotiation process, delegates said.

Optimism previously prevailed among negotiators in the Swiss city that WTO member economies would clinch an outline accord on the Doha Round trade talks as key member economies were poised to accept a set of compromise proposals presented last week by the global trade referee in slashing tariffs and subsidies.

The Geneva-based body had hoped to release the final texts for negotiations on agricultural and industrial products -- the main sticking points in the Doha Round talks -- by the end of Monday.

But a rift between the United States and the two emerging economies over agricultural safeguards clouded the prospects of the Doha Round talks as the ministerial talks of about 30 economies entered the second week in Geneva.

The seven major trading parties -- Australia, Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Japan and the United States -- held talks intermittently for more than a half day through early Tuesday to narrow gaps over the issue, but there was no apparent breakthrough.

In addition to the farm safeguard, differences remain between developed and developing countries over other outstanding agenda items, including cotton subsidies and proposals to cut duties in some industrial sectors, delegates said, adding that neither the seven trading parties nor the some 30 economies have addressed these issues as they are tied up with the agricultural safeguards issue.

Describing the situation at the ongoing talks as "very tense," Keith Rockwell, the WTO's chief spokesman, told reporters after midnight Monday, "The outcome is by no means certain."

The Doha Round talks, launched in the Qatari capital in November 2001, have long been stalled due mainly to a rift between rich and poorer countries on the core issues of farm and industrial sectors.

If the 153-member WTO seals an outline accord on so-called modalities -- key figures for cuts in tariffs on agricultural and industrial goods as well as farm subsidies -- during the ongoing Geneva talks, it will give impetus toward a successful conclusion of the Doha Round by the end of this year.

The key ministerial meeting of more than 30 top negotiators was originally set to run for six days through last Saturday.

Before the emergence of the tensions, the delegates were saying they expected to formalize the envisioned deal on the modalities as early as Wednesday.

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