Let the Hostilities Begin

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, he said.

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.

Joseph Stiglitz, 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 the world.