Trade ministers of World Trade Organization (WTO) members will meet today at the opening of their conference in Hong Kong amid pessimism about possible outcomes and anxiety over protesters.
A breakthrough is indeed unlikely, although it is impossible to predict what will come of the talks at this stage.
But if the conference a key forum for WTO members to push ahead with trade negotiations does end without progress, it will not mean the collapse of the Doha Round.
There will be doubts about the relevance of the WTO, but its members will surely act to salvage the organization if one day it is ever in real danger of being marginalized.
With lessons learnt in Seattle and Cancun, where two previous WTO ministerial meetings failed to produce results, the ministers gathered in Hong Kong are expected to try to avoid similar embarrassment, even if they cannot reach agreement on key points.
In the run-up to Hong Kong, they have already done so by offering to exempt the least-developed countries from export tariffs.
But, for the moment, there is no sense of urgency or strong desire among some members to make headway in a bold manner to break the stalemate in agriculture, the most contentious area at present.
Agriculture was controversial before the launch of the new round when discussions were held about what to put on the agenda.
As negotiations proceed, developing nations have become increasingly frustrated about developed nations' reluctance to make real concessions on farm products.
In retrospect, many said developed nations accused of overly protecting their farmers agreed to the launch mainly on political grounds following the September 11 incident.
But since then, there has been no event that could stimulate developed nations to generate the political will and courage needed to push for the development of a global trading system.
The health of the world economy, in particular, seems to be improving despite difficulties of the past few years. Almost all major WTO breakthroughs have been made during difficult times.
If the debacle of Seattle and Cancun is repeated in Hong Kong, the credibility of the WTO will certainly be dealt a heavy blow.
Bilateral or regional trade arrangements, which have already created a complex network in parallel with the multilateral system, will certainly thrive.
However, no government is really toying with the idea of dumping the Doha Round or the multilateral trading system.
It is inconceivable that the WTO, as a body setting trade rules and a tribunal to settle trade disputes, be abandoned as globalization marches forwards.
What the WTO needs is a stronger sense of solidarity and pursuit of common interests from the global trading system, a sense that is more likely to be in full play in a really difficult time for the international community, either economically or politically.
For the moment, one really should not expect much from Hong Kong.
At least, every WTO member that wants to say something gets its voice heard by the world. And what is said will help others understand both their shared and conflicting interests on the road to greater globalization.
(China Daily December 13, 2005)