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'Somber' mood in Bali as hopes fade for commerce deal

NUSA DUA--Indonesia India Wednesday rejected a proposed World Trade Organization package, casting a cloud over a high-stakes conference tasked with reviving the WTO's faltering efforts to liberalize global commerce.

The package, which New Delhi fears could endanger its efforts to subsidize food in the huge nation, “cannot be accepted,” commerce minister Anand Sharma said.

“Agriculture sustains millions of subsistence farmers. Their interests must be secured. Food security is essential for 4 billion people of the world,” he told his counterparts on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

“Yes, we have rejected it,” he later told reporters, calling it a “final decision.”

His comments appeared to torpedo WTO chief Roberto Azevedo's hopes that delegates can agree on a modest package of measures to keep alive the multilateral organization's stumbling 12-year-old drive to slash trade barriers.

“I am an optimist by nature, but today I must admit I am in a somewhat somber mood,” EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told reporters.

'Debilitating blow' for WTO

One by one, delegates to the four-day conference warned Bali could be the last chance to rescue the WTO's vision of an open trading environment fair to both rich and poor countries.

“Leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations,” said U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.

“And if that happens, the unfortunate truth is that the loss would be felt most heavily by those members who can least afford it.”

The WTO launched the “Doha Round” of talks in Qatar in 2001, seeking to overhaul the world trading system by setting a global framework of rules and tearing down barriers.

But protectionist disputes between rich and poor countries, and the WTO's insistence that an accord be unanimous, have made progress frustratingly elusive.

Meanwhile, alternative regional pacts between major trading nations including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pushed by Washington have emerged, threatening the WTO with obsolescence.

Azevedo has said it would be “tragic” if such arrangements carry the day as they cannot protect the interests of the world's poorest countries — a key WTO objective.

Chances for success in Bali have increasingly centered on India's position on food security.

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