WASHINGTON A deal among the United States, China, the European Union and nearly two dozen other countries to eliminate duties on billions of dollars of technology products could be reached in the next two months, U.S. technology groups said on Thursday.
"We're quite optimistic we're going to get this across the finish line by the end of July," John Neuffer, a senior vice president at the Information Technology Industry Council, told reporters in a phone call from Geneva, where some members of the World Trade Organization met this week for talks.
The countries are negotiating an expansion of the WTO's Information Technology Agreement, a 16-year-old pact that eliminated duties on a long list of technology products including personal computers, laptops, telephones, fax machines, computer software, semi-conductors and many office machines.
The agreement's original membership has grown to 75 over the years, including the 27 nations of the European Union. That is less than half of the WTO's 159 members, but still encompasses about 97 percent of global trade in the products.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke said he hoped for a "lot of progress" in coming months in talks on expanding the agreement.
"There is no reason logistically why we couldn't wrap up the ITA discussion sooner rather than later," Punke said, although he resisted predicting when a deal would be reached.
About $4 trillion in current trade is covered by the current pact, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank which estimates that an expanded agreement could cover $800 billion in additional trade.
U.S. consumer electronic companies are particularly eager to see the agreement expanded to cover flat-screen displays used both as computer monitors and for television viewing.
The European Union, which has a 14 percent tariff on flat-screen displays, has resisted including them on the expanded list, apparently fearing that it could prompt U.S. and Asian manufacturers now based in Eastern Europe to relocate.
While computers were covered by the original agreement, television sets were not.
But now, "you can take a computer screen and watch TV on it and you can take a TV and access the Internet," said Sage Chandler, director of international trade for the Consumer Electronics Association.
"We have had long discussions with Europe about this and we're hoping to move the ball forward," Chandler said.
The United States also wants to include other consumer products such as speakers and headsets, as well as additional electronic components such as new semi-conductor products.
More than 20 members of the current ITA agreement, including big players like India and Indonesia, have so far decided to stay of the talks on the expanded pact.
But even at this late stage of the negotiations, U.S. industry continues to reach out to them in the hope that they will decide to come in, Neuffer said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Vicki Allen)