India poll should boost world trade
India’s voters have just given stalled world trade talks their biggest potential boost since the financial crisis spurred fears of rising protectionism.
By handing the governing Congress party a decisive victory, unshackled from the Communist party, Indians have created a chance to break a deadlock in negotiations on global commerce that foundered last year on a U.S.-Indian spat over farm trade.
Trade Minister Kamal Nath, whose dogged defence of India’s small farmers helped sink the talks, told Reuters on Sunday: “We believe that it is even more important to conclude the Doha round as one of the measures to extricate the global economic from going into a tailspin, and India is willing to play a leadership role in this.”
The unexpectedly clear Indian vote coincides with signs that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, after striking a protectionist tone to appease blue-collar voters, is warming to completing a World Trade Organisation accord. In recent speeches Obama has rightly identified trade as key to pulling the world out of recession.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk made positive noises on a visit to Geneva last week. He revealed nothing new but said Washington was committed to seeing the trade round launched in Doha in 2001 succeed and he did not want talks to start from scratch or throw away work already done.
He restated U.S. demands that major emerging economies — China, India, Brazil and South Africa — must open their markets more to American exports to achieve a deal. Without tangible benefits for business, it would be hard for Obama to push a WTO agreement through a trade-sceptical Democratic Senate.
The prospect of holding a decisive WTO ministerial before the summer break still seems remote. Before it is worth convening ministers, the United States, India and probably China must thrash out the complex dispute over ways to shield developing nations from a surge in agricultural imports.
This and the equally sensitive issue of cotton, where U.S. subsidies are a big obstacle, were the last two points to be resolved when last year’s WTO talks collapsed. Eighteen other areas had been provisionally settled.
With hindsight, it is extraordinary that the pro-trade Bush administration clinched an agreement on nuclear cooperation with India last year without linking it to a Doha accord. Obama has not set a date for concluding a U.S. trade policy review, but Washington should not squander the opportunity for an early understanding with a more market-friendly Indian government.