"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

The Appeal of Small Umbrellas

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 12/20/2005

Bo Xilai , the minister of commerce, told delegates in Hong Kong last week: “If the theme of development only sticks to slogans without any substantive content, the world will be disillusioned by the Doha Round [of trade talks].” It was arguably China’s strongest message to date since entering the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

The United States spends US$20 billion and the European Union more than US$80 billion annually on agricultural subsidies for fewer than 100 million farmers. Meanwhile, 200 million farmers in China live on less than US$1 per day, and some 2.5 billion farmers in developing countries live in poverty. China’s concerns are also shared by Brazil, India, Indonesia, Egypt and hosts of developing and underdeveloped nations.

In the global order, it is natural that more powerful countries will try to dominate weaker ones and establish economic and political pacts to sustain dominance. But if the WTO is to strengthen the democratic process among nations in the interest of promoting fair and reasonable international trade, it should ensure that fair trading principles are in place.

Only that will allow market access on all sides – between developed and developing nations – and strengthen the comparative advantages of each, promoting economic development.

Meanwhile, in Kuala Lumpur, such issues topped the agenda at the first East Asia Summit of national leaders.

“We have all agreed that the East Asian community will be a reality in the future,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who chaired the meeting.

Organic regional integration may provide a better foundation for addressing concerns meaningfully in future, especially as the WTO is increasingly perceived as working in the interests of the Group of Eight most industrialised nations against the core interests of poorer countries.

The WTO should be working towards not just free, but equitable, trade. It should force open markets not only in developing nations, but also in developed nations, where protectionism is as severe. It should also make possible regional economic integration without allowing regional protectionist blocs to arise.

However, the WTO now encompasses a bundle of cumbersome agreements, and presses upon developing nations economic and trade formulas created in the distorted-reality world of western think-tanks. As it becomes clear that one formula cannot fit all, new forums are being sought: nations seek a return to reality by looking for regional co-operation.

In The Jakarta Post, Indonesian commentator Jusuf Wanandi observed: “The Asean countries … will continuously reform, restructure and integrate their economies towards the creation of a single market and production base in 2020. China, for its part, is making the same effort and is doing that at a remarkably rapid pace.”

Despite the WTO’s intention to create an umbrella to cover all the world’s trade, this vision appears less practical for many developing nations.

With concrete examples of pragmatic, more manageable cooperation emerging – such as the first East Asia Summit – the WTO may find its role eclipsed by smaller, more substantive forums.

It is interesting that neither the United States nor Britain was invited to participate or even observe.

Premier Wen Jiabao noted that “the US, the EU and other countries and organisations outside the region” were welcome to form links with the new group. But, for now, they are at arm’s length. Perhaps that is why the East Asia Summit may have the potential to become a forum that works.


Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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