Editor's note: This week, Antiwar.com will be on the spot in Hong Kong for
the Sixth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. This is the
second in a series about the issues surrounding the conference, the people involved,
and the roles played by the U.S. and China in this debate.
Tuesday was the kickoff of the Sixth Ministerial
WTO Conference in Hong Kong, and the South Koreans proved that they
are indeed hotheads and will continue to dominate the coverage of the protests
with their aggressive opposition to the WTO.
Ironically, their aims and goals are diametrically opposed to those of their
fellow protesters: The Koreans are fighting to keep their tariffs and agricultural
subsidies in place to ensure their livelihoods.
Many of the other protesters represent small farmers and fishermen whose main
contention is with the unfair practices of the Quad (U.S., EU, Japan, and Canada),
whose subsidies keep developing countries' produce out of their markets, while
offering up aid incentive packages and developed-country services as a carrot.
The anger and hatred that virtually all of the protesters have in common for
the WTO is palpable in the chants to "Junk the WTO" and "F***k
the U.S., F***Bush."
Some Koreans sported "WTO Kills Farmers" headbands and jackets, and
carried "RIP WTO" coffins, the same coffins used to charge police
lines later Tuesday evening. These slogans are in stark juxtaposition to the
rest of the Korean delegation, which spends most of its time sitting in rows
listening to an array of Koreans (presumably) denounce the U.S. and the WTO
in harsh cadences, unintelligible to the rest of the protest contingent. A dozen
or so of the 2,000-strong delegation were drinking during the day – perhaps
in preparation for the struggles of the evening.
"They are fighting for their livelihoods," said Sinapan Samydori
from Singapore. "They have the spirit."
Samydori is president of the Think Center,
which advocates the cause of migrant workers in the city-states on the Asian
coastline – Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, and Singapore. The migrants are often cheated
by their employers, and there is little or no enforcement of a minimum wage,
The protesters are a multinational bunch: Indonesians, Filipinos, Thai peasants,
Taiwanese students, Europeans from Wales, Germany, and Denmark, mainland Chinese,
and Americans – virtually everybody maintains a multilingual platform to ensure
the solidarity of the movement.
Several thousand protesters – upwards of 2,000 by most estimates – marched
on the exhibition center Tuesday afternoon and staged a rally. The most coherent
message audible/visible to the observer is that the WTO is an ineffectual tool
for multilateral trade and is dominated by developed countries' interests.
Other groups, notable Oxfam, believe
in the need for a multilateral vs. bilateral and regional trade framework in
order to safeguard the interests of the poor and to encourage economic growth
in the South – but are frustrated with the WTO's inability to reach any of the
goals set out 10 years ago.
These frustrations become more concrete and detailed during the Fair Trade
Symposium held in the Exhibition Center by the International
Center for Trade and Sustainable Development and Hong Kong University.
The discussion dealt with the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade
agreements (BTA, RTA), which threaten to undermine the multilateral framework
advocated by the WTO.
Dr. Mari Pangestu,
Indonesian minister of trade, began the discussions with a brief description
of the rise of BTAs and RTAs in Asia after 1999. She also spoke of the difference
between "good agreements and bad agreements," with "comprehensive
economic packages" being an ideal agreement.
These packages will take into account not only the advantages of each nation,
but also the capacity of each nation to take advantage of a trade agreement
and the need for each country to have a voluntary fulfillment process, in which
bits of the agreement come to fruition when the situation is right.
The WTO's failure to deliver and the Battle
of Seattle helped to spur the development
of BTAs and RTAs in Asia, as well as the rise of China as an economic power
and China's love of regional trade agreements such as ASEAN.
Perhaps this explains the placement in Chinese media of ASEAN's recent meeting
in Kuala Lampur high above the WTO conference…
The U.S. domination of the WTO is a particular thorn for many delegates. The
U.S. consistently fails to honor its agreements, and the plight of Mexico post-NAFTA
does nothing to encourage countries to believe the U.S. mantra of free trade
and open markets.
former chief economist for the World Bank from 1996 to 1999, was also among
the panelists. He derided the U.S.' inability to lead the way toward a multilateral
framework, and at one point advised nations not to enter bilateral negotiations
with the U.S. because "it is highly unlikely that you will get a good deal"
due to restrictions placed on U.S. trade negotiators by politics and the U.S.
penchant for offering nothing unless markets are open and liberalized.
The atmosphere at the symposium was one of frustration and perhaps even hopelessness.
Questions posed by the audience concerning the duplicity of the U.S. and incentives
for developing countries to enter into WTO negotiations instead of BTAs or RTAs
were met with the same answers, one feels, that were given years ago.
Jack Wilkinson, president of the International
Federation of Agricultural Producers, gave voice to a lot of the frustrations
with the WTO and trade negotiators in general by ridiculing agreements made
out of political expediency when the nations involved have not the infrastructure
to fulfill or take advantage of them.
These comments produced murmurs from the crowd, which points toward a discontent
with trade agreements that fail to provide the "comprehensive economic
package" that Trade Minister Pengestu spoke of.
Agreements that are North-South (e.g., U.S.-Mexico) tend to always favor the
developed country at the expense of the developing country, whereas agreements
that are South-South or North-North tend to be relatively easier to swallow
for all those involved.
The discussion seems to focus on whether or not the WTO will ever be able to
fulfill its mandate, given the power of the Quad, and whether or not it makes
more sense for developing countries to enter into agreements with their neighbors.
The U.S. favors the WTO framework, but given the clear hostility of the protesters
and the latent frustration of the suits at the symposium toward the U.S. policy
of extending aid packages and market access for continued tariffs and subsidies
in the agricultural sector, it seems China's methods of entering into regional
agreements with little or no political ties is more attractive to the rest of