The World Trade Organization yesterday launched a last minute attempt to save proposals to cut global IT tariffs, despite a continuing impasse between developed and developing countries.
The talks have been blocked by a fundamental division over whether such a move is economically viable.
The WTO?s committee on a new information technology agreement (ITA Two) had been scheduled to come up with a programme for new tariff cuts by yesterday. ITA Two would build on the existing 1996 agreement (ITA One), which eliminates customs duties on a wide variety of technology products, but expires in 2000.
But most Asian nations, badly hit by the financial crisis of the last year, have said they cannot agree to any more customs tariff cuts, even though the European Union, the US and Japan are for them.
ITA Two would cover a wide range of new products, including printed circuit board and flat panel display manufacturing equipment; audio, radio and video apparatus; telecomms products and electrical and electronic machines.
These would be added to the products covered in ITA One, to which 44 countries belong and which covers approximately 90 per cent of world trade in IT products, including computers, telecomms equipment, semiconductors, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, software and scientific equipment.
A move to expand this list with the products planned for ITA Two had been seen by the WTO as a logical extension of the negotiations. But the Asian financial crisis torpedoed this hope and Martin Harvey of New Zealand, chairman of the WTO negotiations, has spent the past two months trying to cajole the opposing nations into keeping the negotiations alive.
Although the deadline came and went without any progress, Harvey said he felt sufficiently optimistic to prolong the talks until 24 October.
"There are still some outstanding issues to be resolved but I still think we should continue talking," he said.
At the October meeting, he said, an assesment of the state of play could be made. In the meantime, Harvey promised to remain in nonstop contact with the Asians in an effort to bring them round to an agreement.
WTO officials told 'VNU Newswire' privately that this seems a slim hope at best.
"This is a wider problem than just information technology," one said. "It?s about the financial status of countries in South East Asia and frankly that hasn?t improved in the last three months. And it?s not going to improve in the next three weeks, either."
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