Just as expected, a face-off on agriculture is dominating day one of this week's global trade talks in Hong Kong. International delegates are trying to spark new life into four-year-old free trade goals, but less developed countries say there will there will be no deal unless Europe pries open its farming markets.
The word "development" echoes over and over in the Hong Kong convention center where envoys from 149 World Trade Organization member economies are meeting. Tuesday's opening of the WTO ministerial talks represents for many a last ditch effort to save wide-ranging development goals set four years ago in Doha, Qatar.
U.S Trade Representative Robert Portman says says the Doha goals are of crucial importance for the developing world. "Opening trade flows can give tens or even hundreds of millions of people an escape from poverty - that's one of the motivations that launched Doha," he said. "And [it] should keep us at the table, working hard, to overcome our obstacles coming up with an agreement."
However, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has all but ruled out a conclusive deal from this week's talks. He says the WTO meeting is focusing too heavily on agriculture, and that the EU will not make new offers on the issue.
Instead, Mr. Mandelson says WTO members should aim for a deal sometime next year. He is demanding that developing countries reciprocate Europe's proposals with more market access for E.U. manufactured goods and services.
However, experts say that for many reasons, it is important for the trade negotiators to make considerable progress this week. For example, President Bush loses "fast track" trade negotiating authority in 2007. Any proposed trade deal after that point may have to pass through the political minefield of Congress.
International leaders say failure to reach a deal this week will hurt developing countries beyond just lost trade opportunities. Danny Leipziger, a vice president at the World Bank, says lending and infrastructure projects known as "aid for trade" are dependent on successful talks.
"Aid for trade in the absence of a good Doha outcome gives you very little bang for your buck for development," he said.
International trade experts and delegates say the deal making process is slow and arduous. They say it is almost a given that this week's negotiations will go on around the clock, right up until the meeting's final minutes on Sunday.