Think again, at WTO

Going by the statements in Parliament and before the media, the Indian commerce minister seemed satisfied with the outcome.

Written by K M Chandrasekhar | Updated: January 15, 2016 12:56 am

There has been much discussion in Parliament and in the media on the outcome of the Nairobi ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation. Going by the statements in Parliament and before the media, the Indian commerce minister seemed satisfied with the outcome. Yet a number of experts, writing on the conference, have expressed disappointment at the outcome.

I am aware that only those directly involved in the negotiations would be in a position to properly evaluate the success of the conference. I recall that the Indian delegation at the Singapore ministerial conference waged an arduous and lonely battle against the inclusion of the so-called “Singapore issues” (trade and investment, trade and competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation) in the WTO agenda. For several hours, the Indian delegation held firm until at last reasonably satisfactory language was found.

The Indian delegation, which I was part of as joint secretary in the commerce ministry, considered this a satisfactory solution, but there were angry reactions, including the adjournment of Parliament, back home. At Doha, in 2004, Murasoli Maran, then commerce minister, fought relentlessly despite poor health to keep out the Singapore issues and for a greater development focus to the work programme to be initiated at the conference. The ministerial declaration at the end of the conference again represented a compromise, which left enough room for negotiators to continue discussion. Again, this could be viewed as a victory or as a defeat.

The fact remains, however, that after the Doha meeting, Indian negotiators, led by Arun Jaitley (and, earlier, Arun Shourie), chipped away at the language of the Doha declaration, played a proactive role in the discussions that followed and, at the ministerial conference in Cancun, got three of the Singapore issues out of the WTO agenda, leaving only trade facilitation (in which India, too, had a strong, positive interest). The omission of these issues was, however, not reflected in the ministerial statement at the end of the conference.

My point is that the language of the statements that come out after the conference does not often reflect the cut and thrust of actual negotiations. The Nairobi ministerial declaration, therefore, represents a compromise. From the words of the declaration, there is little to show as progress. It reiterates decisions already taken at Bali on public stockholding for food security and at Hong Kong on special safeguard measures for developing countries in agriculture. The only forward movement, as I can see, is that these issues will now be discussed in special sessions of the committee on agriculture.

The most conspicuous feature of the Nairobi declaration seems to be the implicit recognition of the fact that many countries have begun to lose interest in the Doha work programme. The usual strong affirmation of commitment to the work programme, expressed even as late as 2013 at Bali, is muted in the Nairobi ministerial declaration. In Paragraph 30 of the declaration, it is stated that many members reaffirm the Doha agenda while others do not, “as they believe new approaches are necessary to achieve meaningful outcomes”. This is further reiterated in Paragraph 34 which says, “While we concur that officials should prioritise work where results have not yet been achieved, some wish to identify and discuss other issues for negotiation; others do not.” Of course, introduction of other issues will be subject to the agreement of all members.

It would appear that the negotiations hereafter will not be confined to the broad framework of the Doha work programme as it has evolved over the last decade and a half. New issues will be put on the table and issues that have been discussed and eliminated or modified in negotiations after the Doha meeting may reappear on the table. The long-drawn-out Doha negotiations, yet to see significant results in key areas, and the proliferation of bilateral and regional trading arrangements have led to declining interest in the WTO work.

The present situation gives India a unique opportunity to sit back and reflect on where we stand. There is a great difference between the India of 2001, when the Doha ministerial declaration was issued, and the India of 2016. We have evolved and progressed in various sectors and our interests have also changed. In respect of trade and investment, for example, we have opened the doors wide to foreign direct investment. Our business enterprises have also invested heavily abroad. Likewise, we have a strong competition law in place and have constituted a robust competition commission. Our share of global trade has also significantly grown. We would like other countries to open their markets to our products; in fact, in this context, we have serious concerns regarding non-tariff barriers.

It would also be in our interest to move the services negotiations forward, while our interests in the agricultural sector will remain defensive in the foreseeable future. Thus, this is the time to rethink our negotiating positions, discover new bargaining chips and forge new alliances based on our present interests, as earlier groupings seem to have broken down in some cases. A proactive role, in keeping with our present political and economic stance, would serve our interests better.

The writer, a former Union cabinet secretary, was India’s ambassador to the WTO