World Economy

Australia makes backup plans amid shaky WTO talks

Katrina Bishop and Elly Whittaker
Are WTO members inching toward a deal?

Australia's trade minister has said he is not relying on a global deal at this week's World Trade Organization (WTO) summit, and is instead pushing ahead with bilateral agreements with other countries.

"We're not taking any chances and depending on the WTO," Andrew Robb, trade and investment minister for Australia told CNBC on Wednesday. "It's unfortunate because the WTO sets the rules, even for the bilaterals… Over time if enough of them are done then you're heading towards a multilateral solution."

But he stressed that although this suited developed nations like Australia – which is currently negotiating with China, South Korea and Japan - there were numerous developing countries that did not have similar options.

(Read more: 'Make or break' trade deal: What you need to know)

"And the trouble is that it's a handful of developing countries that are holding back the rest of their fellow developing countries across the world," he said.

Hopes were high that trade ministers from the WTO's 159 member states would agree on the first global trade agreement since the group was formed in 1995 at this week's Bali summit.

The WTO said this deal – which is focused on the movement of goods globally – would add $1 trillion to the global economy.

But the tone appears to have soured in Bali, with some countries divided over proposed limits to food subsidies in developing economies.

Shaky ground

On Wednesday, India's trade minister Anand Sharma described the agricultural reforms proposed by the WTO "half-baked." The country currently offers food subsidies to nearly 70 percent of its 1.2 billion people, according to Reuters.

(Read more: US dominance set to diminish: ex-WTO chief)

"For India, food security is non-negotiable. Need of public stock-holding of food grains to ensure food security must be respected. Dated WTO rules need to be corrected," Sharma said at the summit.

As such, Indonesia's trade minister Gita Wirjawan told CNBC that the likelihood of a deal in Bali could be less than 50 percent.

The talks have been dubbed "Bali or Bust," and Robb said the credibility of the WTO was on the line.

(Read more: Trade talks in Bali will succeed: Former WTO chief)

If a deal is not struck, the WTO's position as a global trade body will be questioned, particularly at a time when so many other bilateral and multilateral deals are in the process of being negotiated.

But Robb argued that despite this setback, there were still 145 WTO members who wanted a deal this week. "Today, the intransigence of five or ten members has soured the mood, but there is still some heavy negotiating going on," he added.

Robb stressed that China was now Australia's biggest trading partner and "very much" on his radar.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm from both parties to conclude a deal as quickly as possible. This will be very important to us," he said.

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