DAVOS, Switzerland - Trade ministers meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum expressed cautious optimism Saturday that global commerce can continue to be liberalized even without progress in the Doha round of trade talks.
It was the first such meeting after trade diplomats agreed in Geneva last month that progress on the 11-year-old trade talks was unlikely to happen soon. Negotiations have been deadlocked over differences between the U.S. and major developing nations like China, Brazil and India.
"There wasn't any backtracking from the decision that we reached at our ministerial in Geneva, that we really do need to turn the page and explore new ways of moving forward," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told reporters in Davos.
Various ideas have been floated for how to boost global trade, including simplifying customs procedures and helping poor countries acquire the expertise to implement international free trade agreements.
"If one lane is blocked you don't stop your journey, you just get in a lane that's open," said Kirk, quoting an unidentified participant in Saturday's talks.
One sensitive proposal is to push forward with bilateral and regional trade agreements, at the risk of harming efforts to negotiate a truly global deal.
Earlier this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the European Union should seek a free trade deal with the U.S.
Kirk told The Associated Press that teams from Washington and Brussels have already held several meetings to explore such a bilateral deal between the world's two biggest trading partners. But several hurdles will be difficult to overcome, including harmonizing the complex regulatory systems between the U.S. and the EU, Kirk acknowledged.
The key principle of any deal would have to be "do no harm," he said.
South Africa's trade minister Rob Davies said he was supportive of bilateral agreements at a time when prospects for a wider deal seem dim.
"The idea that we're going to make some massive breakthrough in a major deal is remote, but we can work on some issues and those issues are worth working on," said Davies.
Brazil, another rising trade power, also supported the idea of a trans-Atlantic trade pact between the U.S. and the EU.
"I think it can help Europe and the U.S. improve their economies. I'm just not sure it will come as fast as they believe," Brazilian deputy trade minister Alessandro Teixeira said.
Niko Price contributed to this report.