The ongoing ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO) could end in a deadlock, without any outcome, as the US is reluctant to pursue a permanent solution to the issue of food procurement that is central to the demands of developing countries, including India. The US has conveyed its decision to a group on agriculture, sources said.
Its latest stance marks a departure from its commitment in the Nairobi ministerial, where all WTO members had agreed to work towards finding a lasting solution to the issue by December 2017. After over two decades of existence, the WTO is now witnessing a barrage of criticism over the role of US, one of its staunchest proponents, while most others have renewed pledge to further strengthen its framework, exposing stark differences over how a rule-based multilateral trading system is being perceived today.
US Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer said the WTO was increasingly becoming a litigation-centered organisation, losing its focus on negotiation, apart from going soft on fast-growing and wealthy developing countries. The USTR questioned the special and differential treatment to major developing nations at the WTO, in a veiled reference to countries like China and India. “We cannot sustain a situation in which new rules can only apply to the few, and that others will be given a pass in the name of self-proclaimed development status,” he said.
The EU, China, India and most others, however, called on all members to further bolster WTO’s framework. Re-invoking India’s pledge to the framework, commerce minister Suresh Prabhu said: “The expansion of global trade is our vision in the WTO. All countries stand to benefit from it. Therefore, at MC 11 we urge the WTO membership to unequivocally reaffirm the importance of a rules-based multilateral trading system as enshrined in the Marrakesh Agreement. We are increasingly seeing that the discourse on development at the WTO is sought to be deflected by specious arguments based on aggregate GDP figures,” Prabhu said.
He also drew attention to the fact that many developed countries have gained immensely from long periods of derogation from GATT rules in the area of agriculture and textiles.
The USTR’s statement reflects the Trump administration’s critical attitude towards the WTO on charges that US has got a raw deal from the trade body. In late November, the US blocked efforts by the WTO to draft a declaration for ministers to agree on at the Buenos Aires ministerial.
Under Trump, the US has blocked the appointments of new judges to a WTO body that hears internal trade disputes. Analysts have already warned of a paralysis in the functioning of the body, as more judges are expected to see their terms end in coming months.
EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said the successes of the last two ministerials brought some optimism that despite significant differences of views among members, “the WTO is still capable of delivering important negotiated outcomes”. “Unfortunately, however, we start this year’s ministerial conference with more questions than answers, and little sense of concrete progress over the past two years. The system is being challenged, members show insufficient collective ownership and are divided on key questions such as what the WTO should be doing. And there are growing calls for conducting business outside the multilateral setting.”
China’s commerce minister Zhong Shan said: “Let us join hands and take real actions to uphold the authority and efficacy of the WTO.”On the USTR’s claims on special treatment to developing countries, Prabhu said although the country is a fast-growing major economy, it’s home to 600 million poor people and that its per capita income is still meagre ($2,000 in 2017, according to a forecast by rating agency S&P).