Attempts to clinch a deal on the 10-year-old Doha talks fell apart in April, prompting World Trade Organization chief Pascal Lamy to suggest member countries lower their sights and aim instead for a less ambitious trade liberalisation package.
The idea was to shoot for a "mini-Doha" deal at a ministerial meeting in December, pulling together the less contentious pieces of the main negotiations and cementing them into a package that would be definite proof of progress.
But there remains no agreement on what should be in it, and between them the 153 WTO members have proposed including almost everything from the main talks, officials say.
"From my perspective it does not appear to be coming together," David Shark, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the WTO, told a conference at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.
"It seems unlikely that we are going to have one by December, but it would be good if we could," agreed Chinese trade official Zhu Haitao, who said his comments were his personal views and not China's official position.
"This would be the easiest thing we could do at the moment," said Zhu. "We would be telling the world that the Doha deal is still alive. There needs to be a process in parallel to discuss what we should do after December, which is not taking place at the moment."
Some trade experts say Doha has foundered because of a lack of political will. Last week former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tried to dispel the defeatism by saying the deal could be revived with a hefty shunt from Washington, where his unwanted advice got short shrift.
Hopes of such last-minute salvation were unrealistic, said South Africa's trade negotiator Faizel Ismail.
"There are still some who believe that contrary to all expectations there may be a political miracle. In my view this is not a plausible scenario," he told the Geneva Graduate Institute audience.
A scenario with a lot more U.S. support was to "stop and reboot" the Doha negotiations, he said.
Despite the deadlock in Geneva, nobody wants to be seen to be the first to give up on the talks.
"When we come to the ministerial at the end of the year, I can confidently predict that members will not declare that it's dead," Shark said.
That could mean talks dragging on for several more years, said Zhu, partly because of U.S. political hesitancy about engaging in talks and partly because of a need to work out a new dynamic between industrial and emerging economies.
"Obviously 2012 is not the right year. 2013 is not very likely either. 2014 will be another cycle of (U.S.) elections. 2015 might have a slight chance. I don't know if we'll have to wait until 2015 for this round to conclude. That's an open question," Zhu said.
Shark agreed a full deal on Doha was still a long way off.
"Sometimes you hear that we're 80 per cent of the way there. But none of the measurements mean a lot. It's human nature -- you save the hardest part for last," he said.
"We don't even agree amongst ourselves what is the negotiating agenda."