Portman, Johanns Off to Hong Kong

Original Publication Date: 
11 December, 2005

A day before he left for Hong Kong to lead a 40-plus official US delegation to the sixth World Trade Organization ministerial meeting which starts Tuesday afternoon, US Trade Representative Rob Portman told reporters he is optimistic that members can make "incremental" progress on some substantial issues as well as arrive at a plan for least developed countries (WTD, 12/9/05).

The USTR joined Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in a press conference at USTR.

On a possible development package agreement, the USTR said the US goal is to assure developing countries that they will achieve significant results from the final agreement particularly from increased market access in agriculture and industrial products trade as well as increased trade capacity building to help them take advantage of those trade openings.

The USTR also cited a breakthrough in Geneva last week on a Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights/Public Health agreement.

But, the USTR backed away from suggesting the United States would go along with an "early harvest" on the so-called "cotton initiative" which he called a "cause celebre" for the Hong Kong ministerial. Nevertheless, he told WTD, the United States is serious about the cotton issue and has done much over the past two years since the failed Cancun ministerial conference to help the four West African nations increase production and market their cotton globally, including in the United States. He said the United States intends to make some additional initiatives for cotton at Hong Kong relating to market access.

Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia reviewed the "cotton initiative" on Friday with Mali trade minister Choguel Kokalla.

‘Duty-Free/Quota-Free’

Mr. Portman also suggested US willingness to go along with a "duty-free/quota-free" initiative for least developed countries. Just how comprehensive that agreement can be is a matter for discussion by ministers, he added.

The USTR expressed hope for consensus on some specific "building blocks" that would help the negotiations along into 2006 and successfully conclude by the end of next year. He suggested a possible understanding with the European Union on the number of tariff lines it wants excluded from a tariff reduction formula for "sensitive" products. Agreements on a final "Swiss" formula, including the coefficients for cutting tariffs in industrial products along with a type of "formula" that can be used in the services talks to commit all participants to providing market access at least in a specific number of sectors also are within reach, he suggested.

"In Hong Kong we will be stressing that improving market access is again the key to achieving the goals of the Doha round. ... The best way to promote development, expand economic opportunities and alleviate poverty in all counties is through expanded trade. And the only way to expand trade is for countries to open their markets in meaningful ways," Mr. Portman stated.

"Progress in agriculture will ... allow us to make parallel progress in other areas, including reducing tariffs on manufactured products and opening up access to service providers," the USTR said. "I don’t think we can make progress in these other two central areas ... without making progress in agriculture."

Agriculture Secretary Johanns suggested that when the European Union steps forward on agriculture, an agreement is assured in 2006.

A successful Hong Kong conference, Mr. Portman suggested, could lead to a "breakthrough" in the talks including in agriculture during the first part of 2006.

Prior to the start of the conference on Tuesday afternoon, USTR Portman intends to host meetings with the Group-of-Four countries the United States, the European Union, Brazil and India along with separate sessions with the Group-of-20 developing-country coalition and the broader Group-of-90 nations, which includes least developed members of the WTO.