The four lead players in the Doha Round of global trade talks are holding bilateral meetings ahead of a new attempt to save negotiations, but hopes for a breakthrough were slim.
The gathering marked the first-time trade ministers of the G-4 trading powers - India, Brazil, the United States and the European Union which have assembled for talks since the Doha discussions collapsed last July when Washington refused to yield more ground in cutting farm subsidies.
US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim are holding bilateral sessions in the Indian capital to discuss positions ahead of Thursday's G-4 session, an Indian government official said.
Thurday's meeting will cap a series of bilateral interactions that have been under way since the breakdown of the World Trade Organisation talks -- billed as a once in a generation chance to lift millions out of poverty.
Mandelson said before arriving in New Delhi that the talks were "timely and important" and warned that negotiations must be accelerated or "Doha's prospects for this year will be lost."
But US officials have been downplaying expectations for Thursday's meeting, calling it a "stock-taking" effort. Ministers of Australia and Japan were slated to join the G-4 late on Thursday for more talks.
The most that can be hoped "is for people to come on the same page and agree there is a need to move forward," said T.S. Vishwanath, head of international trade policy at the Confederation of Indian Industry.
The WTO is racing against the clock to conjure up agreement in the Doha Round before the end of June when the fast track trade negotiating powers of US President George Bush expire.
A deal between the world's two biggest trading powers, the United States and EU, and the two leading developing nations India and Brazil, is seen as vital to hopes of brokering a compromise among the WTO's 150 members this year.
Developing nations are pushing the United States and other wealthy nations to slash farm subsidies, while poorer countries are being squeezed to allow more access to their markets.
If a breakthrough can be achieved by June, a conclusion to the Doha talks could be reached in about eight months, WTO officials say. Otherwise the Doha round, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, faces years of delay.
"There doesn't seem to be any willingness to compromise so in that kind of situation, it's difficult to expect any favourable outcome," said D.H. Pai Panandiker, president of the RPG Foundation, an Indian economic think-tank.
Nath has said there is "no commitment by India on the deadline" and he would prefer no deal to a "bad deal."
"We want to go forward but the other nations have to meet the needs of developing nations -- this is supposed to be the development round after all," says an Indian government official.
Developing nations are being pressed to open their markets wider to industrial goods and services while developed countries are supposed to slash farm support and allow in more agricultural imports in return.
India and other developing nations fear their fledgling industries will be overwhelmed if their markets are forced open to much more advanced countries.
And they want to protect the livelihoods of farming populations -- up to 80 percent of the workforces in developing nations depend on agriculture