WTO Conference in Qatar Settles Down to Business

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Now that China has been admitted as a World Trade Organization member, the global-trade-policy body settled down its usual business of debating free-trade agreements while ignoring the shouts of protesters nearby.

The big question is whether the group's ministers will agree by Tuesday evening on what areas they will hold negotiations on. If they don't find common ground this time — their second go-round — the body that sets the rules on international trade will be paralyzed.

"It is by no means certain that they will bridge the gaps," WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell admitted.

The last impasse over the agenda for talks, was at the Seattle meeting in 1999.

One thing all the 142 members agreed on, however, was China's application for membership. The unanimous vote meant the once-isolated communist country — and its 1.2 billion consumers — now has a stall in the global marketplace.

Sunday should see the approval of Taiwan which, according to an informal 1992 agreement, could not join before China.

Membership had been China's goal for 15 years. Chinese Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng said his country was behind the WTO's crusade to launch a new round of negotiations on liberalizing trade — that is, Guangsheng said, as long as the "interests and reasonable requests of developing countries" would be given "full consideration."

But, otherwise, it was business — or anti-business — as usual.

Outside WTO headquarters in Geneva Saturday, protesters hurled Molotov cocktails, bottles and firecrackers at riot police who erected barricades and barbed wire fences around the building. The protesters claimed the WTO puts business ahead of people and hurts developing countries

In Doha, a small group of protesters chanted outside a U.S. news conference Saturday. They accused rich countries of bullying poorer nations into agreeing to things not in their interests.

On at least one key issue, poorer countries might agree — protecting patents on medicines.

Brazil and India are leading a group of countries who think they should be allowed to buy cheaper, generic versions of medicines to protect public health.

The United States, Switzerland, Japan and Canada are resisting, arguing that such broad wording could allow countries to override patents on virtually any drug.

There are also major disagreements over agriculture between the European Union, the United States and a bloc of smaller exporting countries known as the Cairns Group.

The 15-nation EU has long demanded that free-trade rules must allow for payments made to its farmers that it says are to promote rural development, food safety and environmental protection. Cairns Group countries, including Australia, Canada and Brazil, say such payments are unfair subsidies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report