The head of the World Trade Organization on Monday dismissed the notion that the Doha round of trade negotiations was dead, and held out hope that a band of smaller countries might help prod India, China and the United States toward agreement.
WTO director general Pascal Lamy said after nearly a decade of discussion, most of the trade topics on the table were "reasonably ripe for conclusion."
Mr. Lamy has urged the WTO's 153 member countries to focus on an "early harvest" of what can be agreed now and leave the most difficult issues for later.
"What if the round fails? This is, I'm sorry to say, a very academic question," Mr. Lamy said during a panel discussion on trade at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Jakarta.
"International conventions never fail. They never die. They just procrastinate," Mr. Lamy added, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Ten years of negotiations in the WTO have failed to seal an accord that could generate billions of dollars and alleviate poverty by freeing up trade in goods and services. The WTO last week postponed negotiations on a slimmed-down deal that would require rich countries to make good on promises.
The United States has been the most vocal opponent of a one-sided deal, calling on emerging countries to pitch in with concessions.
Mr. Lamy, who shared the stage with two trade ministers from Southeast Asia, said countries in that region and Latin America might be able to apply some leverage to the major economies at the heart of the Doha stalemate.
But Mr. Lamy acknowledged that smaller countries had to consider their ties to both sides, which could put them in a bind.
"They all have trade eggs with the U.S. and trade eggs with China," Mr. Lamy said. "They will have to balance these two baskets very carefully."