WTO mini-ministerial: Beyond small gains in New Delhi, the question on trade body’s relevance remains

Apparently, when Roberto Azevedo, the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), landed in Delhi for the two-day mini-ministerial, it was without his bags – the airline had misplaced them. So, when returning to Geneva, was he taking back more than just a new set of clothes? Was he returning with any hope of the continued relevance of the organisation he heads?

At a closing press conference on Tuesday, both Azevedo and India’s Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu, the brain behind the mini-ministerial initiative, sounded upbeat. The meeting was never expected to have any specific outcomes except for breaking the logjam that had set in at the Buenos Aires ministerial in December – for the second time in WTO history a ministerial ended without a declaration. Going by what Azevedo and Prabhu said yesterday, that appears to have happened. They said there was strong support for a rules-based multilateral trading system, and that everybody believed co-operation was key to finding solutions to the problems facing the WTO.

Union Minister for Commerce, Industry and Civil Aviation, Suresh Prabhu, and WTO DG Roberto Azevedo at the mini-ministerial in New Delhi on 20 March. PIB.

Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu and WTO DG Roberto Azevedo at the mini-ministerial in New Delhi on 20 March. PIB.

Azevedo, especially, appeared to be heartened by the fact that the animosity among members in the run up to and in Buenos Aires had faded. “Today I felt that that spirit of trying to find solutions, trying to have a more constructive conversation was still present and I think that is something we can build on,” he said in response to a question.

But dialogue must lead to productive outcomes, if the WTO is to be something more than a gab fest. Azevedo appeared to realise this; at both his address in the meeting and in his opening remarks at the press conference, where he spoke about the need for actions matching words.

The American representative – Dennis Shea, the Deputy US Trade Representative – reportedly affirmed his country’s support for the WTO. The very fact that the US had sent a senior representative to the meeting is being interpreted as a sign of it being engaged with the WTO. However, the real test will be its future actions on the tariffs front, as well as its continued blocking of appointments to vacancies in the Appellate Body of the dispute settlement mechanism.

It is well known that the US has little regard for the dispute settlement mechanism and wants to shift to a system more akin to mutual arbitration. A resolution by the dispute settlement mechanism is not limited to the parties to the dispute itself but becomes applicable to all members; a resolution through arbitration will apply only to the parties concerned.

The looming spectre of rising protectionism, especially by the US, may have dominated the meeting, but what of the seventeen-year old Doha Round that was meant to address issues specific to developing countries? The developing countries want it to continue and the developed countries don’t, and want new issues to be discussed at the negotiating table; this was one of the reasons for the deadlock at Buenos Aires. Delhi seems to have seen a restating of positions on this.

The developed countries once again pressed for initiating discussions on issues like investment facilitation, gender, micro, small & medium enterprises (MSMEs) and e-commerce within the WTO ambit. The developing countries, however, opposed this. India’s remarks on this issue, in the plenary, are interesting: “We can look at some of the so-called new issues, only after we are convinced that these issues are trade-related and negotiating binding rules on them would be beneficial for developing countries, including LDCs. On both these counts, we are open to being persuaded by the proponents [emphasis added].”

But this, India said would depend on the issue of continued Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) provisions for developing countries. “Further we would also require certainty that the needs of developing countries, including LDCs, would be fully taken into account in the negotiations through appropriate Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) provisions.”

The contentious S&DT issue continues to fester. Developed countries have been arguing that some developing countries (mainly India and China) could no longer claim the developing country tag. At the Delhi meeting, there were some suggestions for developing countries to selectively opt out of the S&DT. But this was clearly not accepted by those being targeted, going by India’s statement at the plenary: “. . . S&DT for developing countries is a fundamental part of the WTO mandate. This must be carefully preserved. We do not support arguments which are based on indicators such as aggregate GDP, but disregard the millions of persons living in poverty in these countries.”

Prabhu reiterated this in his concluding remarks at the meeting: “however, it was the view of some participants that implementing these suggestions [voluntary opting out] would further exacerbate the differences between members and therefore be futile.” So, clearly, there was little meeting of minds on this issue.

The real gainers from this meeting may have been India and Prabhu. By hosting this meeting, with the sole agenda of getting countries to talk, India has tried to change the obstructionist image it has had since the days of Murasoli Maran. And Prabhu has reclaimed the high profile that Indian commerce ministers enjoyed in the WTO circles, which had been lost after Kamal Nath.

As for the WTO, despite the optimism exuded by Azevedo its continued relevance is still unsure.

The writer is a senior journalist. She tweets at @soorpanakha.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 17:33:03 IST

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