ITA Expansion Talks Suspended

18 July 2013

Talks to expand the product coverage of the WTO's Information Technology Agreement (ITA) have been temporarily suspended, according to a statement released by the US' top trade official on Wednesday evening.

The negotiations in Geneva have been put on hold due to differences between China and many of the WTO members involved, Washington says. The group, which includes the US and EU, has been working to develop a list of products to add to the agreement for over a year, and had hoped to complete a final list this month. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 June 2013)

"The United States is extremely disappointed that it became necessary today to suspend negotiations to expand the Information Technology Agreement," US Trade Representative Michael Froman said in a statement. "Unfortunately, a diverse group of members participating in the negotiations determined that China's current position makes progress impossible at this stage."

Geneva sources speaking to Bridges in recent weeks had noted that Beijing's sensitivities regarding certain product lines could prove difficult to resolve as the group tries to whittle down its draft list to a consolidated final version.

In an e-mailed statement later on Wednesday, China stressed that it has taken a "very serious attitude" toward the ITA talks.

"We share the same goal with the rest of the participants to conclude the negotiations before the Ninth Ministerial Conference in December," China said. "After intensive and difficult domestic consultations, China has added its support to 150 tariff lines, or two thirds of the proposed products, which is a concrete contribution to the negotiations."

Expressing "deep regret" for the decision of other members to put the talks on hold, Beijing said that resuming the talks "should not be conditioned upon China's supporting its list of sensitive products."

However, Washington has said that it is "hopeful" that Beijing will take into account the concerns of its negotiating partners, and urged the Asian country to "revise its position in a way that will allow the prompt resumption of the negotiations."

Bali in the background

The ITA is a plurilateral pact under the aegis of the WTO that eliminates tariffs on trade in information and communication technology (ICT) products. Forty-nine of the WTO's 159 members have signed onto the ITA, if counting the EU as one member, though the benefits extend to the full WTO membership. Of these 49, over 20 are currently involved in the expansion talks.

The original pact dates back to 1996. Countries involved in the expansion negotiations have said that the agreement must be updated to reflect the realities of today's trade, given the development of new technology products over the last 17 years.

With the WTO's Ninth Ministerial Conference in the Indonesian province of Bali scheduled for early December, many hope that a revised ITA could be one concrete outcome to present at the high-profile event. Finalising a list of products is a key step in this direction, followed by completing the legal terms of the agreement and getting any ITA members not currently involved in the talks on board.

The USTR statement gives no indication of when the ITA expansion negotiations might resume. However, with the WTO set to go on its annual August break in a matter of weeks, the earliest date for new discussions would likely be September.

ICTSD reporting.

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