The World Trade Organisation's governing general council on Saturday approved a revised draft negotiating text for consideration by member governments, underscoring just how much work needed to be done to salvage even a watered-down agreement at the 13-18 December ministerial meeting.
Rob Portman, the US trade representative, said: "It will be a stock-taking. I just don't see the stars aligning."
The WTO's 148-members are eager to reach a deal in Hong Kong, but the revised draft shows how far they are from agreeing on critical issues including the liberalisation of trade in farm products and manufactured goods.
It offers no prescription for cutting tariffs and subsidies on either agriculture or manufactured goods, two subjects that have held up negotiations for many months.
Trade officials concede that progress is needed in these two sectors before Hong Kong and unless the present gulf in opinion is bridged, it will be impossible to reach any meaningful deal there.
Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, said that although some progress had been made at meetings in Geneva this week, there were still significant differences.
Mark Vaile, Australia's trade minister, said: "We are further advanced than we have been in previous ministerial meetings. We should not underestimate the work we have done."
The 25-nation European Union, in particular, has been criticised for not making further cuts to its farm tariffs and subsidies.
"It will be a stock-taking. I just don't see the stars aligning"
US Trade Representative
Peter Mandelson, Brussels's trade chief, said: "We've made some limited progress. We're really doing hard, hard work, not necessarily finding the solutions all the time."
The meeting in Hong Kong is supposed to set up a conclusion to the current Doha round of trade talks, named for the Qatari capital where they were launched in 2001, which aims to cut trade barriers across a wide range of sectors and is supposed to address the needs of developing countries, for which agriculture is a particularly sensitive topic.
Finance ministers from the world's seven wealthiest nations, meeting in London, said on Saturday that the WTO must make significant progress towards a global trade treaty when it meets in Hong Kong.
Gordon Brown, Britain's finance minister, who hosted a meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bankers, called for an "ambitious outcome" to the Doha trade round by the end of 2006.
Brazil and India, who also attended the talks, offered further cuts in tariffs on industrial goods, but demanded further action by the EU and the US on farming subsidies and tariffs.