Philippine Daily Inquirer | 04/22/2007
Asia-Pacific trade ministers defend bilateral deals
By Jason Subler
BOAO, China — Two trade ministers from Asia-Pacific nations on Saturday defended bilateral and regional trade agreements as potentially contributing to, not detracting from, the global trade regime.
The proliferation of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) and regional trade agreements (RTAs) in recent years is seen by some as a threat to the future of the World Trade Organization and the ongoing Doha Round of trade negotiations.
Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry, said that bilateral, sub-regional and regional trade deals were complementary to a multilateral trade regime.
Lim said that while there was some danger that a proliferation of such deals could be like "taking away brick by brick" from the global trade regime, that did not have to be the case if those agreements were held to high standards.
"My counter-image is : We want a global trading regime as epitomised by WTO and Doha, but every bilateral and every RTA should be a brick building towards that potential," he told the Boao Forum for Asia being held in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan.
Lim said that with multilateral negotiations like Doha often getting watered down, regional deals were able to set higher standards.
The Doha round all but collapsed last year over deep differences especially over agriculture, but ministers from a number of trading powers said earlier this month that they would aim to hammer out a deal by the end of this year.
Brick in the wall
Warren Truss, Australian Minister for Trade, told the same forum that the perception of lack of progress on Doha had prompted some countries to do more bilateral deals.
Sticking with the brick metaphor, Truss said that he too did not think that bilateral FTAs necessarily detracted from the global trading regime.
"In fact, it can be adding a brick to the wall because every time countries can reach agreement for a bilateral FTA, they’re developing the text or the solutions that might be able to be multilateralized," he said.
"So a series of bilateral FTAs can, in fact, build the wall rather than tear it down."
Truss said Australia would continue to actively work on further bilateral or regional trade deals.
Australia already has FTAs with New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. It is currently in negotiations with a number of other countries including China, Japan and Malaysia.
Still, Truss said that Australia was prioritizing working towards a successful conclusion of the Doha round.
"It is very important for us to achieve the necessary breakthroughs to bring Doha to a finality this calendar year," he said, adding that both developed and developing countries needed to show more flexibility.
"You can’t wait for the Europeans and the Americans to do it all. They have an important leadership role to play and they need to do more, but the developing world will also need to participate by being willing to open up its markets," Truss said.