Six months before the World Trade Organization opens its ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, organizers say considerable groundwork has been laid toward its goals. But more work must be done if the delegates are to achieve the aim of liberalizing trade while allowing developing countries to protect fragile industries.
The trade ministers of the World Trade Organization's 148 member states face a tough task when they gather in Hong Kong in December. Their job is to agree on "modalities," or frameworks, for reducing trade barriers on thousands of goods.
Keith Rockwell, the WTO's director of information, says if the sixth ministerial conference meets that goal, it will be a significant step toward completing what is called the Doha round of trade talks on time.
"If we can achieve in the Hong Kong ministerial in December agreement on those modalities, it would have a galvanizing effect on the rest of the round, it would greatly increase our chances of concluding it by the end of 2006," said Mr. Rockwell.
The Doha Development Agenda, drafted in 2001, sets out goals for liberalizing trade in agriculture, manufactured goods and services, while allowing developing countries to protect fragile industries.
For the Hong Kong meeting to succeed, the WTO members must spend the next several months drafting proposed agreements on dozens of issues to present to the trade ministers.
Mr. Rockwell told journalists in Hong Kong Tuesday that considerable progress has been made on two areas - agriculture and manufactured goods. However, talks on the trade in services - such as banking, insurance, telecommunications and transportation - are behind schedule.
Part of the problem, he says, is that government agencies overseeing these sectors in most countries are unprepared for the complexities of trade negotiations. And, he says, some countries are reluctant to open up their service sectors, which make up a large portion of many economies, to foreign competition.
Because the WTO works on the basis of consensus, and the topics are interlinked - for instance, a developing country may not want to open its banking business if industrialized countries do not liberalize farm trade - the services issue could deadlock talks.
"I think it's fair to say that unless we can achieve a strong package in services, many governments are going to be reluctant to make concessions in other areas, and the round itself will not prosper," added Mr. Rockwell.
While the WTO members spend the next few months hammering out agreements, Hong Kong officials are preparing for the December meeting. At least five thousand delegates, 2,000 representatives of activist groups and 3,000 journalists are expected to attend the conference. Thousands more anti-globalization activists are likely to arrive to protest about such issues as human rights and environmental protection.
Already, many hotels are booked solid during the meeting. Activist groups are looking for cheap ways to house their supporters, most of whom can not afford Hong Kong's costly hotels.
The city police force has said it will make sure that demonstrators can express their views, but so far has said little about plans to prevent the sort of violent demonstrations seen at past WTO conferences.