India's new commerce minister will be eager to get world trade talks moving again this week. When Anand Sharma, India's new commerce minister, takes centre stage in world trade talks for the first time this week, his overriding aim will not be to reach any solid agreements: it will be to rescue India's reputation after the calamitous breakdown of talks on the Doha round in July last year.
Trade ministers from 36 countries arrive in Delhi today ahead of talks tomorrow and Friday aimed at reviving the troubled Doha round. The round has been drifting since last July's deadlock, which has been blamed on friction between India's previous commerce minister, Kamal Nath, and his US counterpart, Susan Schwab. "Our objective is to re-engage and put in place a rule-based multilateral trade regime which is fair, equitable and which corrects the historical distortions that have hurt the developing world," Mr Sharma said at the weekend. "If the talks collapse, then nobody is the gainer."
In Delhi, the shift of Mr Nath in May from the commerce ministry to the highways ministry, and his replacement by Mr Sharma, has been interpreted as the result of Mr Nath's handling of the confrontation in Geneva last year. At most, the Delhi meeting is expected to set the timetable that will show the way to a final agreement next year. It will be followed by a meeting of the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies in Pittsburgh on September 24, and a formal meeting of WTO members before the end of the year, probably in October.
Bibek Debroy, at Delhi's Centre for Policy Research, said: "I don't think any nitty-gritty is going to be addressed at this meeting, or not publicly so. I think the objective is more to convey the impression that India is willing to take a lead to carry the Doha agenda forward." The nine-day Doha talks in Geneva last year broke down over the "special safeguard mechanism", emergency tariffs that developing countries wanted to be able to impose to protect farmers in the event of a sudden surge in imports.
Mr Nath resisted pressure from the US to raise the level of damage to farmers that would allow it to trigger the mechanism, leading David Shark, the deputy head of the US mission to Doha talks to complain that Mr Nath had "thrown the entire Doha round into the gravest jeopardy of its nearly seven-year life". Last week, Mr Nath defended his actions, saying US negotiators had yet to fully understand the new world order.
"The US was still coming to terms with the changing global economic architecture," he argued. "It's not only India that has to engage with the world, the US has to engage with the world, and in the process of engaging with the world they get to know the world better." Pascal Lamy, the director general of the WTO, told India's Economic Times that the WTO was grateful to Mr Sharma for proposing the informal meeting, originally announced in Bali in December, and progress had been made behind the scenes on the safeguards issue. "Compared to last July, the case for developing countries to protect their farmers against import surges is clear," Mr Lamy said.
"And the case on the side of the exporting members, a large number of them developing countries, that it should not impinge normal trade flows is also clear. It is now a case of finding the right numbers and architecture." But with the new US administration still to appoint some key officials to trade positions, and India eager to host a frictionless meeting, the final negotiations on the issue are unlikely to take place publicly.