The World Trade Organisation started the first day of its flagship ministerial meeting yesterday urging Asian countries not to slip into protectionism, despite the continuing turmoil in the region. The WTO fears that the huge movement of capital flows in Asia will be blamed for the present instability and lead to new barriers to trade and investment. It has begun fighting to maintain open markets, while seeking a commitment to further liberalisation. Yesterday, WTO director-general Renato Ruggiero said the turmoil in Asian economies 'should remind us how interdependent our world is'. 'This means that the single most important message we can send out from this meeting is a message of unity. More than ever, the multilateral trading system offers a force for stability and co-operation.' In what was supposed to be a celebration of the first 50 years of the multilateral trading system, the WTO ministerial meeting - held every two years - is in danger of turning into a battle to prevent the worst-hit countries in the region from turning inward-looking as they try to recover from the crisis. 'First of all, it would be wrong to underestimate the effects of the financial turmoil in Asia,' Mr Ruggiero said. 'The repercussions on current accounts are just beginning to be felt, which means that protectionist pressures could become stronger. 'We need a strong signal from this conference that you intend to resist these pressures, because keeping trade open is the main road to renewed growth,' he added. The WTO has also become concerned about a groundswell of opinion in other quarters that oppose further liberalisation, and which resulted in demonstrations in Geneva on Sunday, when 5,000 protesters marched through the town branding the WTO as an instrument for multinational companies to exploit poor countries. Many countries have also expressed concern that the unchecked growth of globalisation has brought with it significant social dislocation, and has proved uneven. Some trade diplomats consider the unrest in Indonesia as among the clearest indication of the effect of uneven globalisation.