The world's topmost decision-making body on trade will meet in Geneva on 30 November, having only four days at the World Trade Organization (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) to deliver a package of declarations and decisions to convince the world that the multilateral trade system is still functional. This will certainly be a difficult task given that it will require consensus among the 164 members of the WTO, 42 of which are also member States or associate members of The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
In preparation for MC12, officials from ESCAP member States together with other stakeholders convened virtually at the Regional Consultation on Harnessing Trade for Faster Recovery and Sustainable Development. ESCAP has organized such informal and non-negotiating forums for countries to freely exchange views and, if possible, identify pathways to reach consensus before most of the previous WTO Ministerial Conferences. The Consultation's programme included topics where there are active negotiations (fisheries subsidies, agriculture, and selected "joint statement initiatives" - that is, e-commerce, investment facilitation for development, small business), and those of importance for sustainable development and Covid-19 recovery - trade and health, trade and climate change/environment and special and differential treatment (SD&T).
At the end of the Consultation, the high-level roundtable focused on broader WTO reform and multilateral cooperation issues.
Experts' introductions to the topics and member States' views displayed varying priorities associated with level of economic development and/or trade participation. The opportunity to reveal these perspectives is one of the main objectives of the ESCAP fora as they enable stakeholders to seek policy spaces to bridge their differences through cooperation.
However, the discussions also signalled many common views and a real possibility to reach concrete outcomes at MC12 and beyond. Below is a summary of some of these shared understandings and perspectives from the Asia-Pacific region.
1. There is no readily available substitute for trade as a means of development, nor for the multilateral trading system in ensuring a predictable, rule-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable trading environment for all. However, the system we have at present does not offer such an environment.
Revitalisation and reform of the multilateral trading system are needed. The reforms may focus on its three core functions: negotiations of new trade rules, monitoring by providing more transparency into members' policies, and enforcement by making the appellate system operational again. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis and response, new subsidies and digital trade rules seem to be particularly needed.
2. There is plenty of evidence that international trade and supply chains have performed much better than feared at the beginning of the pandemic. Economies in Asia and the Pacific have shown, on average, a sound trade recovery. Yet, this may not be sustained without strengthening the resilience of trade and supply chains regionally and globally, counting on cooperation between private and public sectors, and diffusing troubling geopolitical tensions.
3. The close collaboration between WTO, WHO, IMF and the World Bank is welcome and has shown results in the area of vaccine distribution. However, more cooperation across organizations is needed, and that cooperation must be paired with members' cooperation as well. Ministers at the MC12 need to agree on a concrete framework for addressing trade and health crises - not necessarily only the Covid-19 pandemic. Such a framework will save time, lives, and businesses in future crises.
4. The Asia-Pacific countries that most need access to open markets are low-income and least developed countries (LDCs). Special and differential treatment (SD&T) needs to be preserved and strengthened to narrow the gap between developing and developed economies. Beyond SD&T, graduating LDCs should be supported. Aid for Trade and capacity-building remain important and should be recognized in forthcoming multilateral trade negotiations. Above all, the development dimension of trade should remain accounted for, making sure that the rules contribute to a more inclusive and environmentally friendly world.
5. Multilateral trade rules should support climate action, in coordination with relevant UN organisations. Trade and climate change linkages are complex and require moving from a isolated approach to a networked and multi-level approach. This again asks for more of multi-agency cooperation (particularly between the WTO and the UN), and bilateral and regional initiatives feeding into global solutions.
The roundtable suggested that the most desirable outcome of MC12 (especially from the Asia-Pacific perspective) would be for Ministers to agree on the fisheries subsidies text that has been under negotiation for more than two decades. This would signal the readiness of the WTO members to preserve not only fish resources but also hope for a more effective and sustainable development-oriented multilateral trading system.