APEC agrees new round in 2001, agenda first says Malaysia

by Martin Khor

Penang, 17 November 2000 - Leaders of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum ended their informal Summit meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on 16 November with a declaration that the leaders agree that a balanced agenda responding to the concerns of all WTO members be finalised in 2001 and that a round be launched in 2001.

However, there were differing interpretations among the leaders as to the meaning and the points of emphasis to the placed on this part of the Declaration, which had been the most widely-publicised point of contention in the APEC series of meetings this week.

Whilst much of the mainstream media highlighted that APEC leaders had called for the launching of a new WTO round of negotiations, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad stressed at a post-Summit press conference that any launching of a Round would be conditional on first having agreement on an agenda, and that this position was shared by some other APEC leaders as well.

The relevant para 23 of the Declaration states: “We reiterate that there is a need to expeditiously launch a new WTO round for the benefit of all WTO members, particularly least-developed and developing economies. We agree that a balanced and sufficiently broad-based agenda that responds to the interests and concerns of all WTO members should be formulated and finalised as soon as possible in 2001 and that a round be launched in 2001. The elements and objectives we agreed in Auckland (venue of the 1999 Apec Summit) remain relevant.”

This Declaration of the leaders differs from the statement of the Economic Ministers’ Meeting of 12-13 November, in which no date for the launching of a new round was set.

The Ministers’ statement stated that: “Ministers reaffirmed their strong commitment to the launch of a new round of multilateral trade negotiations at the earliest opportunity. They agreed that the successful and expeditious launch of a new round requires an agenda that is balanced and sufficiently broad-based to respond to the interests and concerns of all WTO members. With this in mind, they called on delegations in Geneva to agree on an agenda in 2001 and urged all WTO members to muster the political will and exercise flexibility.”

The Ministerial Meeting had been marked by contention on whether a new Round should be launched in 2001. Whilst Ministers of APEC’s developed members (especially the United States and Australia) had pressed for a commitment to launch a round in 2001, the Malaysian Trade Minister, Rafidah Aziz, had insisted that there could not be a mention of a date until an agenda for a round had first been agreed to.

She said APEC had to look at the practical side of things like getting an agreement on a viable agenda sorted out first. “If there is no agenda, then what are countries going to talk about?”

Rafidah had also denied that Malaysia was a “lone voice” speaking against the tide, and said Malaysia’s views were shared by many other countries that were just not so vocal. “Malaysia is vocal on the side of the majority and does not want the rest of the world to be bull-dozed by the very vocal but powerful few,” she was quoted in The Star, a Malaysian daily, on 14 November.

At a media conference at the conclusion of the APEC leaders meeting on 16 November, Dr Mahathir said the differently-worded Declaration did not mean that APEC had backtracked on Malaysia’s earlier proposal to set a deadline for the agenda first before deciding on a launch date for a WTO round.

According to a report by Bernama, the official Malaysian news agency, Dr Mahathir said Malaysia agreed to a new round on condition that an agenda is in place. “If there is no agenda, then there is nothing to discuss,” he told Malaysian journalists.

In another report, the Malaysian daily, Business Times, quoted the Prime Minister as saying: “The general opinion is that we should have the launch in 2001, but it must be preceded by an agreement on the agenda. If there is no agenda, how to have a meeting... if (the launch) is conditional on having an agenda. And this is not just Malaysia, others speak in the same way.”

Dr Mahathir reiterated that if an agenda cannot be finalised, then there is no way that a new Round of WTO talks can be launched. “I hope that they (trade officials in Geneva) can have an agenda. If they purposely not come up with an agenda, then it will be difficult to have a new round. What are we going to talk about?”

Dr Mahathir added that Malaysia also stressed there should not be any side meetings within the WTO, where particular groups meet separately and attempt to impose their decisions on the rest. “This should not happen because it will greatly disadvantage those who did not take part in these side meetings,” he said,, adding that this was done by several developed countries informally at the WTO Ministerial meeting in Seattle last year.

He said as an organisation, the WTO must have certain orderliness in its procedures. It must identify the agenda and procedures which nobody can bypass and force their opinion on others. “We have to agree on the agenda. We cannot simply talk. We must know what to discuss. If you want to talk about free trade, let’s talk about how free trade is affected by non-tariff barriers, for example,” he said.

The Malaysia newspaper Business Times commented that at this year’s APEC meeting, Malaysia has been portrayed, particularly by the foreign media, as being against free trade and the WTO by insisting that countries should not rush into fresh talks. “Malaysia’s stand has been that an agenda should be clearly defined first, and that any outstanding implementation issues from the previous round of WTO talks be addressed,” said the paper.

Besides the main para 23 on WTO, there are two other paragraphs in the declaration of the leaders that deal with WTO issues:

“24. We instruct our Ministers to make meaningful progress in the agriculture and services negotiations now under way. We also instruct them to continue the preparatory work on industrial tariffs and other related areas, as part of the preparation for a new round, without prejudice to the overall agenda for negotiations. We reaffirm our commitment to the moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions until the next WTO Ministerial Meeting and we acknowledge the importance of avoiding unnecessary measures restricting use and development of electronic commerce. We endorse our Ministers’ call for the establishment of an ad hoc analytical task force in the WTO which would examine how WTO rules are relevant to the evolution of electronic commerce.

“25. We commend the confidence-building measures adopted in the WTO, including those on market access for least-developed economies and those addressing concerns over aspects of the implementation of WTO agreements. We urge effective implementation and the participation of more economies in the least-developed economies market access initiative.”

Martin Khor is the director of Third World Network.

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