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Cairns Group to bat for the WTO 'little guy'

By Alex Frew McMillan CNN Hong Kong

HONG KONG, China -- Farm exports are creating a powerful lobby on the side of the World Trade Organization's underdogs.

For once, the "little guy" includes the world's two most populous nations, China and India. And it brings together an 18-nation bloc known as the Cairns Group.

That body, named after the Australian city where it formed in 1986, will come into play again in Doha.

It promotes the interests of big farm exporting nations, hoping to free up trade of farm produce.

The World Trade Organization talks that start Friday in Qatar will be dominated by the European Union and the United States.

But the Australia-led Cairns Group will line up against the European Union, the United States and Japan on farm subsidies.

The EU has said it will refuse the group's call to scrap all farm subsidies. The United States has asked Japan to be reasonable on farm goods, to avoid failure in the Doha talks.

Big players from around the world

The Cairns Group pulls together a wide variety of countries including Argentina and Brazil in South America; Canada in North America; South Africa in Africa; Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific; and Indonesia and Malaysia in Asia.

The full member list of the Cairns Group also includes: Bolivia; Chile; Colombia; Costa Rica; Fiji; Guatemala; Paraguay; the Philippines; Thailand; and Uruguay.

Together, they hope they pose a sufficiently powerful group to bring the biggest markets to the bargaining table.

The group lacks teeth, in that even the countries that make it up often have diplomatic interests that reach further than agriculture, and sometimes conflict with it.

But they have more cause than normal to push greater access for farm goods in Doha.

A time that matters

One of their members, Argentina, is desperately close to defaulting on its government bonds, partly because its exports of key products like beef are limited.

wto demos
Protests have broken out in developing countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and India over the Qatar talks  

Another, Malaysia, is one of the staunchest critics of globalization.

Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of the Muslim country, has warned that the developing world has to fend for itself against predatory economic superpowers.

The United States is keen to keep Malaysia's support in the fight against terrorism, as well as that of a third Cairns Group country, Indonesia.

Indonesia is the world's most-populous Muslim nation. But its economy is dangerously close to crumbling back into the chaos that afflicted it as Abdurrahman Wahid was ousted as president.

The United States wants to make sure that doesn't happen. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says he is personally working on developing a bilateral agreement on trade with Indonesia.

Developing countries cry to be heard

Indonesia Trade and Industry Secretary Rini Soewandi said last week that this is a vital time for the World Trade Organization to tackle the issues facing the developing world, including farm goods.

Developing countries make up two-thirds of the WTO's 142 members. But the developed countries, which account for 20 percent of the world's population, consume 80 percent of the world's resources.

The WTO needs to work on trade, particularly farm goods, to rectify that, she said. It also needs to spread the wealth, "to improve the living standards of the world's population," she said.

The Cairns Group feels developed countries, particularly the United States, Japan, South Korea and European Union nations such as France, have not lived up to promises from the WTO's last set of free-trade agreements, the Uruguay Round.

"We had ambitions of agriculture being treated in international commerce the way other goods are treated. What we ended up with was a reshuffling of the deckchairs," said Lyall Howard, who is in Qatar to negotiate for Australian farmers.

"Agriculture is discriminated against, and that's unacceptable," he said. "It sticks out like a bump on a log."

Pushing farm goods on three fronts

The 18 countries aim to push progress on three fronts: improving access for farm goods to all markets; reducing domestic subsidies for farm goods; and reducing subsidies for farm goods exported to other countries.

Soewandi noted that poorer countries will be helped by the accession of China to the WTO. That's expected to be finalized on Saturday, with a one-month waiting period before it takes effect.

"For developing countries like Indonesia, it's very positive for China to join the WTO," she said. "It's a bigger economy, and it will speak out for developing countries."

China has pushed hard for greater access for its farm produce, and won a battle with South Korea over imports of Chinese garlic.

It is also waging a trade war with Japan over imports of Chinese shiitake mushrooms, spring onions and tatami-mat rushes.

But other observers say it is not clear how China will align itself.

Given its aspirations as a superpower, and its seat on the United Nations Security Council, it may affiliate itself more with the big powers than the developing world on other issues.


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