The next ministerial meet of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), scheduled to be held in Cancun in September may end up being a non-starter like Seattle.
"The road to Cancun is riddled with roadblocks and potholes. It is for the developed countries to win back trust so that people in developing countries can see some tangible benefit in a multilateral forum," Commerce and Industry Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters after returning from Tokyo.
There was a need to fix an agenda and work on a timetable to handle pending issues, he said. The minister, who headed the Indian delegation, said in case of agriculture, the Harbinson draft was a starting point for further discussions.
However, it was important for developed countries to bring down their subsidies, while allowing developing countries to calibrate their own tariffs.
"Our tariffs have a direct impact on the lives of the farmers. We can't permit social unrest," he said.
With a long list of pending issues from Doha, the Tokyo mini-ministerial hit a number of roadblocks with developing and least developed countries (LDCs) refusing to budge on issues of trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS), special and differential treatment and implementation issues.
The meet, which was called to discuss market access-related issues on farm, non-farm products and services, and on Singapore issues, could not cover much ground on these areas as the pending issues from Doha took up most of the time.
Interestingly, officials pointed out, India was supported by the US on the Singapore issues and by the EU on the issue of TRIPS and public health. Both sides seemed to by vying for our support on agriculture, which was the main issue between them, they said.
There was a possibility that another mini-ministerial might be held in Cairo before September to try and sort out pending issues, they added.
Trade experts said the Harbinson draft recognised India's point about protecting the domestic market in developing countries and called for a decrease in subsidies for developed countries.
A cut in their subsidies would reduce their production and lead to an increase in international prices to some extent.
This would give non-subsidised farmers in developing countries some chance to compete, they added.
"The freedom offered to developing countries and least developed countries to give farm subsidies is only a notional advantage because most of these countries do not have the money to give subsidies," they further said.
Officials who attended the meet said India pushed for giving implementation issues priority over discussions on Singapore issues.
Even during discussions on the latter, the country's stand was that negotiations could not begin until an explicit consensus was reached at Cancun.
On the specific issues, also the country was emphatic that status-quo had to be maintained for the time being. In case of investment, officials pointed out that the level of investment depended on investment climate, political stability and the like, and not on whether the dispute redressal court is located within the country or in the WTO.
Even on government procurement, they said there was enough transparency domestically and that there was no point in making it a multilateral issue unless the next step was gaining market access in developing countries.
Trade facilitation and competition policy are the other Singapore issues, which the country said should not be taken up as of now. On the former, officials said while most developing countries would like to decrease transaction costs, they do not have the money to develop world class infrastructure.
Also, prioritisation of spending on social sectors or infrastructure should be a matter of internal policy, not an issue to be decided at a multilateral forum.