With the United States exerting firm pressure behind the scenes, the World Trade Organization prolonged once again its talks on a new Information Technology Agreement.
The negotiations on ITA Two, which builds on the existing agreement of tariff cuts that expires in 2001, have been dragging on for almost a year, with some Asian countries blocking any progress for financial reasons.
But when the latest deadline arrived on 11 December with no apparent breakthrough in sight, chairman Martin Harvey of New Zealand said that he was extending the talks to 22 February in the hope of progress.
WTO officials said the United States, which wants to keep the talks afloat at any price, had been behind the decision.
"Washington has made it clear it wants an ITA Two come hell or high water and if that means keeping us negotiating in circles here for the foreseeable future, then so be it," a European Union delegate told VNU Newswire.
That in effect is what has been happening since last Summer. India and countries of the ASEAN group have said they cannot commit themselves on further tariff cuts in an ITA Two because of the precarious financial situation in Asia.
Moreover, they have constantly changed their lists of goods which could - or could not - be included in the projected ITA Two. Harvey is now talking about a list of 200 goods, down from 400, which could be grafted onto ITA One. This currently covers some 90 per cent of the world's production of IT products.
U.S. and European Union delegates say they could go along with this if the Asians could only get their act together, but that the talks have to be kept afloat somehow until that happens.
Harvey told reporters Friday he was sure it was possible.
"This is the moment of truth," he said. "We're going to have an agreement in February. Merry Christmas."
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