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Kick Starting Multilateralism

Support for multilateral solutions to trade policy problems is high among analysts in the Asia-Pacific region. Governments too say they prefer multilateralism over unilateral policy shifts. But what are we prepared to do about it? We are taught in game theory that talk is cheap--and there has been a lot of cheap talk about supporting the WTO in recent years. Indeed, if fine words in summit communiques resolved trade disputes and negotiation impasses, commercial peace would have broken out a long time ago.

Given the multilateral solutions involve give-and-take what initiatives could Asia-Pacific governments--potentially in collaboration with states from other parts of the world--propose that can generate tangible progress at the World Trade Organization in Geneva? Is there any serious appetite for taking on new bindings obligations? If not, then what are the alternative forms of cooperation that can be fostered at the WTO and can they address big ticket (ie. trillion dollar plus) matters of commercial significance. Of course, there may be a case for confidence-building measures that start small and beget further cooperation. But how can ministerial support be sustained without eye-catching initiatives?

Posturing is easy but unproductive. No doubt some will be tempted to repeat one-sided demands of trading partners. This forgets that trade deals are deals--all parties have to change policy. Or, will historians conclude that the appetite for global trade deal-making is over for now and that the populist and nationalist developments in certain industrialised countries and emerging markets were a convenient scapegoat for rot that set in many years ago?

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