by Abid Aslam

Seattle, 30 Nov 99 ( IPS) -- Security forces, on guard at the gathering of the 135-nation World Trade Organisation (WTO) this week, are prepared to counter everything from rampaging protesters to a nerve-gas attack but negotiators fear the greatest danger is likely to be a Japanese 'torpedo'.

"They're on the brink of torpedoing the whole idea of a new round (of global trade negotiations)," said US Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade David Aaron, referring to Japanese delegates at the WTO's third ministerial conference which opened Tuesday.

Japan has led a growing number of WTO members in insisting that the next round of trade negotiations include a review of anti-dumping laws, which have allowed the US government to slap punitive tariffs on imports it deemed to be sold at prices below the cost of production.

The next cycle of negotiations over the future of global commerce is expected to last about three years. These ongoing talks, scheduled to end Friday, are aimed at framing the agenda for those deliberations.

Japanese officials insisted that the US administration abused anti-dumping rules to prop up troubled domestic industries - most notably, the politically influential steel sector - despite President Bill Clinton's stated commitment to free trade.

Clinton was scheduled to address the trade body Wednesday in a bid to ratchet up the talks, which have begun without any clear agreement among members on what to do next.

"When trade liberalisation proceeds, some people try to re-regulate in some way," said Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Yoshiji Nogami. "Recourse to anti-dumping measures is just one way of turning the clock back."

US negotiators have balked at adding dumping to the agenda for fear this would anger politically powerful business and labour constituencies as well as members of Congress who regard the present rules as the ultimate defence against an influx of cheap imports.

"We're just not going to do it. We can't do it. We won't do it," Aaron told reporters.

"Pre-empting any negotiation from the outset is not very meaningful," Nogami shot back, adding that Japan had the support of "quite a few countries."

The United States had brought dumping complaints against more than a dozen steel producers in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe over the past two years. Many of these countries - including Japan - had sought to export their way out of an economic crisis.

The US-Japanese exchange took place as the WTO's poorest members - the so-called 'least developed countries' (LDCs) - issued their own list of demands.

"First and foremost," wealthy nations must grant full market access - including zero tariffs - to LDC exports, said Bangladeshi Minister for Industries and Commerce Tofael Ahmed. "We will insist on this."

That might not be necessary since European officials and WTO Director-General Mike Moore had endorsed the proposal.

The concession would involve little sacrifice on the rich nations' part because LDCs account for less than half a percent of worldwide exports.

The United States had sought to protect its domestic textiles industry from a surge in imports but US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said late Monday that the zero-tariff deal likely would pass.

"Poorer countries are falling farther behind wealthier countries," she said. "Better integrating the LDCs and the poorer developing countries is a priority for the United States. I expect that there will be an announcement on the LDC initiative in the next couple of days."

African and other developing countries, meanwhile, pressed for the "review, repair and reform" of existing WTO agreements before any new issues were added to the trade agenda.

This was in response to rich countries' efforts to introduce new issues including the liberalisation of investment and government procurement. In particular, developing nations saw the objectives of investor protection as an attempt to revive the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in order to benefit capital exporting countries and multinational corporations.

"It took seven years for the (rich) countries to fail to negotiate the MAI," said Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement, a London-based non-governmental organisation. "Now, the European Union (EU) is proposing to negotiate an agreement with the same objectives in three years under the WTO."

"If the EU is to live up to its promise for this to be a so-called Development Round, it is time they started listening to the needs of the developing countries," he declared.

This week's talks are being held without China, even though the world's most populous country recently struck trade deals with the United States and Canada in hopes of gaining admission to the WTO.

EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy anticipated a similar agreement with the European bloc but said a deal would come after the Seattle conference.(SUNS4564)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS).