ITA Talks Back on Track

John Neuffer photo

After some fruitful discussions on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings just wrapping up in Bali and a boost from the APEC Leaders themselves, negotiations to expand product coverage of the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) are back on track.

Recall the ITA talks were suspended in July after China showed up in Geneva with a super-sized list of products it wanted removed from the negotiating table. The two-month logjam was broken when China provided some helpful assurances and worked with the U.S. and other players in Bali to find a way forward that would allow for a resumption of talks -- now expected to begin again in Geneva the week of October 21.

The end of the impasse is welcome.  While the pause was necessary, further delay would have jeopardized getting a strong deal concluded by the next World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Meeting, also in Bali, in early December.

To be sure, much work needs to get done over the next few weeks and we can’t have any backtracking from commitments already made.  But as long as everyone arrives in Geneva for the next round of talks with the political will to get an ambitious outcome and reasonable product “sensitivities” lists to prove it, a deal this year is in our grasp again.

APEC has repeatedly proven itself as an important life source for the ITA.  It played a pivotal role in giving birth to the agreement in the mid-1990s.  And now it helped breath life back into the ITA expansion negotiations.  In addition to providing the backdrop for constructive discussions to break the logjam, there were numerous rhetorical flourishes in Bali supporting expansion of the groundbreaking tech agreement.

The new WTO director general, Roberto Azevêdo, for example, delivered these ITA-friendly words to the APEC Ministerial Meeting on October 4:

Another area, where you can help is the Information Technology Agreement. ITA participants today represent around 97 percent of world exports in information technology products. APEC members are at the forefront of these discussions and I would urge those of you involved to press on with a view, hopefully, to the harvesting of an ITA product expansion package in December.

It was good to see Azevedo, with his long and distinguished career as a Brazilian trade official, take up the ITA torch.  Remember, Brazil is not a signatory to the agreement.

Then, after APEC ministers issued strong words of support for ITA expansion, the 21 APEC leaders followed suit, calling today for a “swift conclusion of negotiations” before the WTO Ministerial in December:

We encourage the swift conclusion of negotiations to expand product coverage of the WTO Information Technology Agreement (ITA) before MC9, and also seek expanded membership of the ITA.  A final ITA expansion outcome should be commercially significant, credible, pragmatic, balanced, and reflective of the dynamic technological developments in the information technology sector over the last 16 years. Such an outcome would strengthen the multilateral trading system, promote connectivity, support regional economic integration, and drive economic development throughout APEC economies and beyond.

So it looks like it’s back to Geneva to see if the ITA member countries can hammer out the most significant tariff-elimination agreement coming out of the WTO since the ITA was born in 1996.  And that would mean a much-needed shot in the arm for technology-driven innovation, investment and job growth for the global economy, especially those countries that participate in the ITA.

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