US trade agreements are a distraction, WTO says

March 23 | Updated: Mar 24 2006, 05:30am hrs
The Bush administrations pursuit of bilateral trade agreements with individual nations has become a distraction that may be undermining talks to lower trade barriers globally, the World Trade Organization said.

The number of U.S. free trade agreements has also created political interests in other nations that could complicate multilateral negotiations, the Geneva-based WTO said today in a 134-page analysis of U.S. trade policy.

The U.S., which had three free-trade accords in place when President George W. Bush took office in 2001, has since entered into trade agreements with nine nations, and is negotiating with at least five more. The individual accords with the U.S. have taken precedence for many nations over global talks, the WTO said.

The WTOs 149 member countries have been trying to meet an April 30 deadline to set an outline for cutting agricultural subsidies, lowering tariffs on farm and industrial goods and allowing more foreign investment worldwide. The April date is the third time the deadline has been extended, and reaching a deal by then will be difficult as the energy in the talks has dissipated, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said.

Many poor nations have complained that lowering trade barriers wholesale through a global agreement could reduce the benefits of their bilateral programs with the U.S. and Europe.

The U.S. has recently completed trade deals with Australia, Bahrain, and Morocco, and a regional agreement with Central America. Its currently in talks with Thailand, South Africa, Colombia, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates, and plans to start talks with South Korea and Malaysia later this year.The U.S. says its pursuit of these individual trade deals is part of a strategy that Portman has labeled complementary liberalization and isnt intended to undermine the WTO.

We are stretching ourselves a little thin sometimes, but were not going to slow down, Portman told the Agribusiness Group of Washington today. In our more and more integrated global economy, the U.S. needs to be a leader. We need to be able to run and chew gum at the same time.

Overall, the WTO said the U.S. continues to pursue a policy of advancing open markets, and maintains its market largely open.

This openness is one of the factors that foster U.S. growth, as it allows U.S. producers and consumers to access required goods, services, and capital from abroad at the best conditions, the WTO report said. It is therefore important to maintain this openness by pre-empting possible protectionist sentiment.