Hosting some 40 trade ministers from across the world for a two-day meeting in New Delhi, India on Thursday made a strong plea for an end to protectionism by some countries while it pushed for early resumption of multilateral trade talks and building a consensus on the way forward.
In his opening remarks at the mini-ministerial meeting of the 153-member World Trade Organisation (WTO), India's Commerce Minister Anand Sharma asked the assembled dignitaries to remain conscious of the 2010 deadline to conclude the Doha Round.
Sharma said the trade ministers had no doubt reaffirmed their commitment to the current round of trade talks ever since these were launched at the Qatari capital in November 2001. Meetings have since been held in Washington, London, Bali, Paris, L'Aquila and Singapore.
"Together, we need to work in this spirit, go beyond yet another reaffirmation and work collectively to provide guidance for a clear road map of multilateral engagement in the months ahead, remaining conscious of the 2010 timeline."
The minister recalled that in the previous meetings, the leaders were also united in their views that sustaining trade and investment flows was critical for the future prosperity of developed and developing economies alike.
"They recognised that one of the main threats to a revival of trade flows is the rising protectionist pressures and continued delay in concluding the Doha round. Therefore, strengthening the multilateral trading system by concluding the Doha round at the earliest is vital, is an imperative."
Maintaining that the Delhi meeting constituted a microcosm of the entire WTO membership, "representing all shades of opinion and interests", Sharma said this would be the first time since July 2008 that such a meeting was taking place to give a determined push to the multilateral process.
Asking ministers to discuss the process required to reach the goal and to build a consensus, Sharma said the meeting was aimed at providing guidance for a road map for the multilateral engagement.
At the same time, he said the two-day meeting was certainly not the appropriate forum to talk specific issues in various areas of the negotiations as not all 153 WTO members were represented. This was best left for Geneva, the headquarters of the global trade body.
But Sharma, nevertheless, called for the discussions to focus on the best ways to spark the multilateral negotiations and build a broad-based consensus so that they result in quick conclusion.
The commerce minister said he was aware that sharp differences remained, which needed to be resolved by officials, before the ministers can collectively outline the way forward and come up with fair solutions.
"In some quarters, it has been suggested that most issues have been settled and we are almost in end game," he said, adding: "It would be apparent that there are still a few gaps and large number of unresolved issues."
"In some instances, the architecture of a solution is not yet fully in sight. In others, there still remain negotiating gaps that need to be sufficiently narrowed before the ministers can collectively outline the way forward come up with fair solutions."
Earlier, WTO Director General Pascal Lamy told a business conference that restrictive steps by some countries to protect their domestic markets in the wake of the global economic crisis had hurt international trade, which must remain open.
"Some countries have increased tariffs, instituted new non-tariff measures and initiated more anti-dumping actions," Lamy told the conference organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).
"True, none of them has triggered, so far, a tit-for-tat chain retaliation. But there is no denying they have had some trade-chilling effect," said the director general, here at the Indian government's invitation for talks on Doha Round.
"While I do not think we are in a situation where we need to cry wolf, we need to remain vigilant and ensure that WTO members remain open to one another."