- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

The United States’ top trade envoy is set to leave this weekend on a “round-the-world” tour of national capitals as he tries to revive global trade talks that collapsed last year.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick plans to start his tour in Asia — with Tokyo, Beijing and New Delhi — and move on to Africa and Europe during the approximately two-week jaunt, a U.S. trade official said.

“I plan to visit a number of capitals around the world early this year … to hear other ideas and assessments of how we can advance together,” he wrote to World Trade Organization members last month.

The tour will offer face-to-face meetings as Mr. Zoellick attempts to build support for new trade rules to make sure 2004 is not a “lost year” for the negotiations.

The talks were supposed to finish by the end of this year, but hope of meeting that deadline all but disappeared when rich and poor countries during a September meeting in Cancun, Mexico, fought to a standstill, ending negotiations early while leaving angry and empty-handed.

The collapse was triggered when developing nations refused to agree that expanded trade rules should cover customs and government procurement regulations, and protect foreign investors.

A 20-nation bloc led by Brazil, India and China also demanded an end to the subsidies rich nations pay their farmers, a politically charged issue that remains the most difficult challenge for the talks.

Mr. Zoellick’s January letter reasserted U.S. leadership at the WTO, and since then, officials from the so-called Group of 20 have signaled a new willingness to revive the talks, which could boost overall economic prospects but also threaten sensitive industries and agricultural interests.

“Nobody has a crystal ball, but there is enough room for us to push forward and to seek a conclusion of the round,” Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, said Monday in Geneva, according to a Reuters report.

The 15-nation European Union, a key to any agreement, also has said it wants to see talks succeed.

A U.S. trade official last week likened the new mood to a “January thaw,” but cautioned that negotiators still have substantial ground to cover.

“I think the practical side and the policy debate are going to have to come together and find a way forward in the next few weeks,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

The WTO’s governing body meets next week in Geneva to discuss the year’s trade agenda. Trade officials hope to have an outline for negotiations complete by mid-year.

“I think there is room for a lot of progress this year,” said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Economics, a Washington think tank. “Given the complexities and the political sensitivities I don’t see an agreement being reached this year. … But if they don’t make progress this year one could see retrenchment or diversion of political capital to other priorities.”

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