By Ben Otto
Dec. 8, 2013 4:46 p.m. ET

NUSA DUA, Indonesia—Efforts to liberalize global trade inched forward over the weekend, but the limited progress showed the difficulties of broadly reducing trade barriers for all nations and the rising appeal of smaller regional pacts.

Negotiators at the World Trade Organization meeting in Bali, Indonesia, agreed to a scaled-back package aimed primarily at streamlining customs procedures world-wide, a modest breakthrough in the trade discussions that began in 2001 in Doha, Qatar. The agreement could add billions of dollars to the $65 trillion global economy by making it easier for goods to pass through customs.

The deal reached Saturday still needs formal ratification by all 159 WTO members and could take months, or even years, to come into effect.

After reaching a deal in Bali, several trade officials traveled to Singapore to work on a regional trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes the U.S. and Japan.

Such smaller trade pacts have proliferated in recent years as the Doha round of talks hit roadblocks. The U.S. and Europe are also in the early stages of discussing a regional trade pact, and various nations are working on other bilateral and regional pacts.

“The action is in the regionals,” said Kati Suominen, a trade expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. “For business, multilateralism has simply proven to be too slow and of limited value to keep investing in.”

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