THE US has been asked by several trading partners to 'Open up its port services to international competition, a longstanding request given more significance by the dispute over the takeover of P&O by Dubai Ports World.
The request, made in the World Trade Organisation Doha round of global trade negotiations, stands almost chance of success. The proposal is not new, and the US has already ruled out liberalising any port services in the Doha round. But it underlines the sensitivity that even rich nations can have to liberalising service industries, which often leads to foreign companies buying up domestic providers.
The request was made collectively by a group of large trading partners including the European 'Union, Japan and China recently. Such "plurilateral" requests, some of which have been seen by the FT, generally involve groups of rich countries -- usually including the EU, the US and Japan -- asking emerging market nations such as Brazil, India, Malaysia and Indonesia for access to domestic service markets such as financial services, telecoms, energy and IT.
But in maritime services, the US is one of the countries on the receiving end. The request by 13 WTO members asks it to liberalise "auxiliary services", which include operating ports.
The US has long been protective of its shipping and other maritime companies: the Jones Act, a longstanding piece of legislation, stipulates that all merchandise shipped between two US ports must be carried in a vessel built, owned and crewed by Americans.
"The United States is not offering any commitments in the WTO services negotiations involving maritime services that involve port activities," said a spokeswoman for Rob Portman, US trade representative. "Nothing in the services negotiations will impact the US ability to protect our national security interests."
The EU emphasised it had asked the US to liberalise ports several times before, and the timing of this request during the P&O takeover battle was a "pure coincidence", "We and the many other parties to this request remain hopeful that the US will consider new access in this sector," said a Commission official. "It remains their prerogative, of course, to refuse it."
The service sector talks are one of the three main parts of the Doha negotiations, along with industrial goods and agriculture. The EU wants new access to emerging markets' service industries in return for cutting farm tariffs and subsidies.
As mooted during a ministerial meeting in January, trade ministers from the "group of six" leading nations -- the US, the EU, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia -- met recently in London to try to make progress in the negotiations. The talks focused on trade in industrial goods and agriculture.
Under syndication arrangement with FE