Farm dispute imperils WTO vision to free up trade

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AFP) - India on Wednesday rejected a proposed World Trade Organisation (WTO) package, casting a cloud over a high-stakes conference trying to revive faltering efforts to liberalise global commerce.

Commerce ministers from WTO members are meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in hopes that agreement on the modest package could sustain the WTO's stumbling 12-year-old drive to slash trade barriers.

But New Delhi fears the accord could endanger its efforts to support farmers and subsidise food in the huge nation.

Its position is believed to be supported by many other developing countries who fear opening their agricultural markets.

"Yes, we have rejected it," commerce minister Anand Sharma told reporters, shortly after telling the 159-member WTO that the matter is "non-negotiable." Delegates warned that failure to reach even a limited accord during the four-day Bali talks could spell doom for the WTO's "Doha Round" of talks on slashing global barriers to commerce.

"Leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told reporters the situation in Bali had put him in a "sombre mood." The talks are set to end on Friday.

The WTO launched the Doha Round in Qatar in 2001 to pursue its vision of an open trading environment fair to both rich and poor countries.

It would seek to overhaul commerce by setting a global framework of rules.

But protectionist disputes between rich and poor countries, and the WTO's insistence that an accord be unanimous, have made progress frustratingly elusive.