ITA Expansion Talks Make Final Bali Push; GPA Ratification Set for 2014

21 November 2013

Talks to finalise a list of products to add to the WTO's Information Technology Agreement (ITA) have now been extended through the end of this week, in the hopes of giving participants more time to clinch a deal ahead of next month's ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia. Separately, sources confirm that the process to bring the revised WTO Government Procurement Agreement into force - while making some headway in recent weeks - will not be completed ahead of the December gathering.

"Final" ITA expansion round extended through week's end

The Information Technology Agreement is a plurilateral pact under the aegis of the WTO, and fully eliminates tariffs on a list of information and communication technology (ICT) products. Though the agreement's commitments bind only those members that have signed onto it - a list that numbers 50 - its benefits are extended to the full WTO membership.

The original ITA was concluded in 1996, and entered into force the following year. The process to update the agreement's coverage began in mid-2012, when a group of ITA participants presented a concept paper calling for an expansion of the pact's product list and membership in an effort to reflect the changes in trade over the last two decades - such as the development of new technologies, or the fact that some of the original ITA products are now obsolete.

There are now 25 of the ITA's 50 signatories negotiating the expansion. Getting the remaining ITA participants to sign onto the final list will likely be a process for after the ministerial, sources say.

The latest round of ITA expansion negotiations - which is meant to be the final one - was slated to end yesterday. However, sources involved in the negotiations confirmed that additional time is now needed in order to resolve outstanding differences with China - the world's largest top exporter of ICT goods - over its list of product "sensitivities."

The ITA expansion talks had been suspended in July due to an earlier standoff with Beijing on the subject, resuming in late October. (See Bridges Weekly, 31 October 2013) At the time, the length of the list of products that Beijing wanted excluded from the pact's coverage was deemed untenable by some members, such as the US.

According to a blog post by Information Technology Industry Council CEO John Neuffer, the list that Beijing released during this week's negotiations still marks approximately 140 product lines - out of the 250 being considered for the expansion - as "sensitive," with Beijing asking that over 60 products be removed entirely from consideration and that the others have long tariff phase-out times.

Despite these difficulties, the past several days of discussions have yielded some progress in other areas, one delegate involved in the talks confirmed.

"There have been some shifts in position, and difficult decisions, made by some," the delegate said, adding that the group negotiating the expansion is still hoping to "make it across the line" for Bali.

Revised GPA: Entry into force expected in early 2014

Sources say that the revised Government Procurement Agreement, or GPA - an outcome of the WTO's last ministerial conference in Geneva in 2011 - is now likely to enter into force during the first quarter of 2014. Members of the Government Procurement Committee, which is tasked with administering the agreement, had previously hoped to bring the new version of the pact into force in time for the Bali conference.

The agreement - also a WTO plurilateral - commits members to certain core disciplines regarding transparency, competition, and good governance, covering the procurement of goods, services, and capital infrastructure by public authorities.

To date, the committee has received instruments of ratification from Canada, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Chinese Taipei. While the EU, US, Korea, and Hong Kong are also expected to ratify the pact in time for Bali, that number will still fall just short of the two-thirds "critical" mass needed to bring the deal into force.

Even though GPA members will not be able to announce the deal's ratification in time for the ministerial conference, sources have confirmed that a ministerial-level meeting of the Government Procurement Committee will indeed take place in Bali. At that time, any new accessions to the plurilateral pact will be announced, and participants will also provide an update on ratification procedures and plans for the committee's future work.

With regards to accessions, sources say that New Zealand - and potentially Montenegro - might be ready to join the GPA's 15 participants in Bali. However, China - with its vast government procurement market - has not yet tabled the revised GPA offer that it had promised for the end of this year; when such an offer will come is not yet clear.

ICTSD reporting.

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