GENEVA (AP) — The United States must present a ''roadmap'' for rescuing global commerce talks from collapse, India's trade minister said Thursday, amid uncertainty about the Bush administration's authority to negotiate a final deal.
Kamal Nath's warning was one of a number of signs from a meeting of developing countries at the World Trade Organization that the so-called Doha round of free trade talks is still in deep trouble.
''We reach a point where uncertainty on this score will drive everything to a grinding halt,'' he told reporters. ''I'd like to hear from the U.S. what is the way forward, what can be expected.''
Nath demanded more clarity from Washington on when, if at all, the Bush administration would again be able to secure congressional authority to present trade deals to the U.S. Congress for a simple yes-or-not vote.
The expiration of the ''fast track'' authority in June has made it harder for the U.S. to move from its entrenched positions, and has led many countries to question the value in negotiating a deal that Congress can go through line-by-line, rolling back U.S. concessions and demanding more from others.
The Doha round has repeatedly stalled since its inception in Qatar's capital in 2001, largely because of wrangling between rich and poor nations over liberalizing farm trade and, more recently, manufacturing trade. Countless deadlines have been missed and top negotiators have warned that the entire process could fizzle out without a breakthrough in the coming months.
''The U.S. needs to come up with a comprehensive roadmap,'' Nath told reporters. ''We are willing to follow.''
Washington rejected any suggestion that it was holding up progress.
''The U.S. has provided a very clear roadmap by agreeing to negotiate on the basis'' of two WTO proposals to liberalize agricultural and industrial trade, said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative. ''We hope others will join us,'' he said, a reference to the U.S. and 27-nation European Union's previous criticism of countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa for refusing to accept deeper cuts in manufacturing tariffs.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, meanwhile, railed against the ''obnoxious'' surcharges on farm produce levied by wealthy countries, which he said had the sole aim of shielding entire agricultural sectors from foreign competition. Nath and South African Farm Minister Lulama Xingwana criticized the U.S. failure to reform its cotton programs, which have been ruled illegal by the WTO.
Brazil sees the situation little differently from how it was in 2003, when a ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed largely over how rich countries support their farmers. Critics say the subsidies drive down global prices and make it harder for poorer countries to develop economically by selling agricultural produce abroad.
''There are many indications now that the (EU) and U.S. are working to reduce ambition in agriculture,'' said a Brazilian list of ''talking points'' from the meeting, obtained by The Associated Press. ''As in Cancun, this involves reducing their demands to each other and directing all efforts to achieving more market access in developing countries.''
Neither of two official statements released Thursday by developing country groups suggested any willingness to open up industrial markets in exchange for farm subsidy and tariff cuts, as demanded by Washington and Brussels.
New compromise proposals by the WTO's chief agriculture and industrial negotiators were planned for release this week, but have been pushed back. The Brazilian document said it did not expect the farm trade paper until possibly February, a delay that ''could raise some concerns.''
China — whose rapid export growth and hardline positions have threatened both developed and developing nations — said it was determined to secure a longer grace period for cutting tariffs and opening up its manufacturing markets than the two years that has been proposed by the WTO. The Asian country also says it should be allowed to make smaller cuts than countries such as Brazil and India, under exceptions it claims as a newer WTO member.
''In order to reach an agreement we need to be flexible,'' said Ambassador Sun Zhenyu of China, which joined the WTO in 2001 but stands to be perhaps the biggest winner of a successful Doha agreement.
Amorim said it was important to quash ''rumors'' circulating about the round, such as that negotiators have now pushed back any hopes of a breakthrough until June or July, when looming U.S. congressional and presidential elections will make it more difficult to ensure Washington's commitment.
When asked if he would seek the WTO's top post when Pascal Lamy's term as director-general ends in 2009, Amorim said, ''Never.'' But, he quickly added, ''Never say never.''