WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top U.S. trade official on Thurday warned that the World Trade Organization faced an uncertain future as a negotiating forum after failed efforts to reach a world trade deal, and urged support for a proposed International Services Agreement.
“Quite frankly, the WTO as an institution is at a crossroads,” U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke told a congressional committee. “Our view is the WTO can’t fix its problems without first acknowledging them.”
Punke said the WTO took a positive step last December, when members finally agreed that world trade talks were at an impasse after a decade of fighting over how much various WTO members should cut farm subsidies and tariffs.
But even as that meeting was ending, a number of countries “were gnashing their teeth about a possible (multi-country) pact known as the International Services Agreement that somehow was going to bring down the system,” Punke said.
That debate has continued, with the United States, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Turkey and 13 other developed and developing countries moving toward the launch of services trade talks over the objections of big emerging economies like China, Brazil and India.
The 20 WTO members now mulling the services talks will meet again in Geneva in early October and plan additional meetings in November and December, he said.
Punke said the proposed International Services Agreement would build on more than 100 bilateral and regional services agreements that have been negotiated in the past 18 years.
“We do not have a hard deadline (for starting negotiations), but would like to see things move forward as quickly as possible … The worst thing we could do in Geneva is have a situation where no negotiations are going on,” Punke said.
U.S. services companies such as Citibank, UPS and Verizon strongly support the proposed pact, which could tackle difficult new issues such as government restrictions on the cross-border data flows over the Internet.
The U.S. services sector accounts for nearly 80 percent of U.S. economic output, and includes everything from banking to express delivery to telecommunications as well as many other services not tradeable in world markets.
The United States is the world’s largest services exporter and enjoys a trade surplus in the sector, compared with the huge trade deficit it runs in manufacturing. U.S. services exports exceeded $518 billion in 2010, with a surplus of $160 billion.
“By negotiating an international services agreement that lowers barriers to U.S. services exports, we can rev up a great engine of U.S. job creation,” Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican said.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)