An opportunity lost

Print edition : August 28, 1999

Evolving a common developing country perspective and approach ahead of the crucial Seattle Ministerial Meeting of the WTO proved an elusive dream at the Bangalore meeting of the G-15.

FEW people expected the meeting of Trade Ministers and officials of a group of 17 developing countries - called the G-15 after the founding quorum of members - to produce a dramatic breakthrough in strategic perspectives. Meeting in Bangalore on August 17 and 18, the G-15 showed ample evidence of all the infirmities that it has been beset by since its founding, notably a conspicuous lack of shared trade interests which impede the evolution of a strategic consensus. Since it was expected to evolve a com mon developing country perspective for the third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to be held in Seattle, United States, between November 30 and December 4, the Bangalore meeting must count as an opportunity lost.

Given the differences in perception that emerged, observers were left in bleak contemplation of the possible impact that developing countries, whether individually or in blocs such as the G-15, would be able to make in Seattle. The stakes, undoubtedly, a re high. The U.S. is leading the push towards a fresh round of global trade negotiations that will seek to open up unexplored vistas before the WTO. Several industrialised countries have generally lent their authority to this initiative, which could seek to put in place a regime of intrusive trade regulation by the WTO.

Reflecting the G-15's dilemma on what could be legitimately placed on the agenda in Seattle was the chairman's "summary of discussions" that was released after the Bangalore meeting. The summary ended up being just that - a statement of intentions rather than a united stand on issues. As Union Commerce Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, chair of the Bangalore Ministerial Meeting, said, it is "not a resolution, but a statement reflecting the views of various delegates".

It was evident from the chairman's statement and from conversations with delegates that the stands differed widely. Either individually or collectively, the member-countries of the G-15 forum took stands on specific issues that on various occasions ident ified them with the advanced countries.

Existing differences were neither resolved nor mitigated. Malaysia and Indonesia, members of both the G-15 and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), are for example ready for a new round of discussions that would cover the reduction of ind ustrial tariffs. This position arises from their shared interest in lowering customs duties on consumer electronics in their major export markets. Two G-15 countries, Argentina and Chile, both members of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countri es - are open to negotiations on further liberalisation of trade in agriculture. This is a position that puts them at odds with fellow G-15 countries, India and Egypt. There are also differences on whether the WTO should be allowed to draw up a global pa ct on foreign investment. While some of the G-15 countries, notably Brazil and Chile, are open to the idea, India and Egypt are against it.

The Bangalore meeting reiterated the willingness of some members, notably the Latin American states, to enter into a new round of trade negotiations where all issues would be negotiated as part of one single undertaking. This again is a view that is at v ariance with the current Indian position.

As spelt out by Ramakrishna Hegde, India is clearly opposed to any new round of all-encompassing trade talks. India also holds the position that the Seattle meeting should confine its attention to a review of the problems and unfulfilled promises of the Uruguay Round. As far as negotiations are concerned, India believes that only areas that have already been entrusted to the mandate of the WTO, such as agriculture and services, should be taken up for talks after Seattle.

"We have emphasised that promises made at the Uruguay Round should be fully and faithfully implemented," said Ramakrishna Hegde. He added: "No purpose will be served by taking on new issues before that. And we do not want to overload the agenda, since th is only causes delay as happened in Uruguay."

In a shift of emphasis, Ramakrishna Hegde made it clear that India would not oppose the introduction of new issues such as tariff reduction that may be brought for negotiations. But he stressed caution: "Let us first review what resolutions we have alrea dy adopted. The touchstone of any agreement will be the extent of benefits developing and least developing countries have derived from so-called free trade."

Despite the major differences, consensus was possible, though in limited spheres. The chairman's statement in no uncertain terms stressed that the G-15 was totally opposed to any WTO talks that sought to link trade with core labour or environmental stand ards. Consensus was also achieved over the need to oppose the introduction of issues such as national competition policies, electronic commerce and government procurement in the negotiating agenda of the WTO.

At the opening session of the Group of 15 Ministerial Meeting at the Vidana Soudha in Bangalore on August 17.-T.L. PRABHAKAR

There was unanimity also on the removal of inequities in the existing agreements and on the restoration of "the balance of rights and obligations forged in the Uruguay Round". Also arousing the unanimous concern of the G-15 was the non-realisation of be nefits by many developing countries in areas such as agriculture and textiles because of the failure of the developed countries to honour obligations in spirit, and the non-implementation of special and differential provisions made during the Uruguay Rou nd.

The mood that permeated the meeting was not a new one: a disappointment with the responses from the developed world to the problems and concerns of the developing world, especially the least developed countries. As Ramakrishna Hegde said during a present ation by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) coinciding with the G-15 event, the experiences of the last two years had been that "there was sympathy and plenty of crocodile tears for the developing world but no free access to the markets of the de veloped world".

The Bangalore meeting was a continuation of the process of consultations that the G-15 started in Cairo in May 1998, prior to the 1998 Geneva Ministerial Conference. Delegates of the G-15 countries had also met in a WTO-issues-related symposium in New De lhi in November 1998 and then again during the Ninth Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the G-15 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in February 1999. With the third WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle ahead, it was decided at Montego Bay that a G-15 Ministerial Meeting would be held before finalising a common stand on issues.

The G-15 countries account for more than 43 per cent of GDP of all developing countries, have an average per capita GDP of $2,116 and is home to 30 per cent of the world's population. But its large size could be the grouping's biggest stumbling block. Pe rceptions, needs and responses are as large and as varied.

Curiously, despite all the hype on the importance of the G-15 standing together and straining every sinew if it is to prevent a repeat of the raw deal handed down to the developing countries at the Uruguay Round, only eight of the G-15's 17 members decid ed to depute a Minister - among whom three were junior Ministers - for the Bangalore meeting. Worse still, many of the representatives did not quite seem to be in tune with all the intricacies of processes of the WTO.

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