The first real insights into the direction in which the Doha Round process will move forward will likely evolve this month. Firstly, the G20 coalition will meet in Brasilia from 9 September, and the Cairns Group will hold its 20th Anniversary meeting in Cairns Australia from 20 September 2006. Recall that these alliances represent reformist/development-reformist stances on trade. South Africa is the only African country in the Cairns Group and a mere handful of Africans (Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe) belong to the G20. The Doha impasse is indeed perplexing and not completely unexpected based upon the recent history of their progression post Hong Kong, where the missing of the April 2006 deadline set in Hong Kong and the overtly convoluted Falconer agriculture text in mid June 2006, have proven telling in hindsight.
The African absence in the G20 may go some way to explain that from an African perspective there has been a surprisingly mild reaction to the WTO negotiation impasse, indicative that the underlying African stance is actually defensive. In this sense perhaps there is strangely some counterintuitive parallel with the United States stance. While the United States is adamant about its aversion to ‘Doha Lite’, there is a definite undercurrent of protectionism on the trade front, borne perhaps from the wider perceptions about outsourcing of United States jobs, and some surprise at the disdain with which WTO dispute settlement has treated the United States Farm Bill. In addition, the United States may be approaching a creeping realisation that perhaps Indian trade minister Karmal Nath was not too far wrong in speculating after Hong Kong that for the United States ‘their competitiveness is gone’ as trade figures indicate that the United States is fast becoming a net agricultural importer. It should also be recalled that the last significant trade agreement passed in the United States, with CAFTA, passed only with a very narrow margin, and Democrats who voted pro-trade outside of their caucus, must be feeling rather nervous of their seats in the House with the imminent mid term elections looming. Perhaps the open aversion to Doha Lite is a safe and palatable way of ensuring ‘Doha Dry’ at least for a time of political convenience.
While the G20 and Cairns meetings will be directional indicators, the United States surely still has the leading role to play in distilling a renewed focus for the refuelling of the round. In this regard the G20 and the Cairns Group meetings will also provide some opportunity to gauge United States sentiment as the United States will be present on the fringes of both gatherings. The European Union will also actively be seen on the fringe of the G20 meeting, but has been rather shyer of the Cairns event, perhaps being nervous of a coalition developing between the Cairns Group and the United States contrary to European Union interests. In the eventual mist clearing the United States and the European Union will likely find that some influence will need to be brought to bear on to expand the present G-6 to include Africa, as this continent is likely to prove a rather less docile voice when a deal is emerging than it was when the deal receded.