The 11th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is scheduled to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina this December. This is the second time a Latin American country will host such a crucial WTO event. Earlier, Mexico hosted the fifth ministerial meeting of the multilateral trade organisation in Cancun in September 2003.
It is a critical time. Multilateral trade regime is at a stake. The announcement of floating two mega regional trade deals, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), was made during the 10th ministerial conference in Nairobi in 2015. This cast a dark shadow over the future of the WTO. US President Donald Trump has of late ditched the TPP deal. The TTIP, the bilateral mega deal between the US and the European Union (EU), also faces uncertainties. Only China-centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is now under negotiation. Meanwhile, the US trade policy is now focusing on bilateral trade arrangements as opposed to multilateral rule-based trade regime of the WTO.
[A meeting between the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer and Director General of the WTO Roberto Azevedo was held recently. After the meeting, the USTR issued a statement which 'reaffirmed his (Azevedo's) support for improving the WTO' and his 'commitment to working closely with US trading partners to increase the WTO's ability to promote free and fair trade.' But, there is no clear indication that he or his country is going to extend support to make the Buenos Aires meet a success.]
SHARP Division: As usual, member countries of the WTO are sharply divided on the issues to be discussed and finalised in the MC11. A large number of developing countries, led by India, Indonesia and South Africa, are pressing for the so-called permanent solution of the public stockholding of foods. They are also pressing for completing the unfinished Doha round negotiation which started in 2001.
The developed and developing countries have failed during the last 16 years to reach any consensus on the issues of reduction of farm subsidy and industrial tariff cut along with many other issues of the [Doha] agenda. The issues involve a new set of multilateral trade rules on agriculture, industry, services, dispute settlement, intellectual property right and other areas. As negotiation is incomplete, there is no agreement except the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).
Many things have changed in the world of economy and geopolitics as negotiations have dragged on and developed countries are now pressing for new issues to be discussed under the WTO framework. They also want to conclude the Doha round carrying some of the unfinished issues with new issues in the fresh next round of talks.
E-commerce and Micro-Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are the two new issues that the developed and some developing countries want to bring under the purview of the WTO. There is also a move to bring investment and trade facilitation within the WTO framework. But most of the developing countries are opposed to these proposals. They think that global binding rules will hurt the growth of these sectors.
When ministers meet in Buenos Aires on December 10-13 this year, they have to deal with such divisions among themselves.
Stake for Bangladesh: Now, if the of Doha round is completed, as proposed by the developed countries, the LDCs will have to wait for another work programme without getting their legitimate facilities.
Meanwhile, LDCs are also yet to reach a consensus on new issues. Cambodia, the current coordinator of the LDC group, is planning to encourage countries within the group to move ahead with e-commerce as WTO actively recommends it. African LDCs want to keep the issue outside of the WTO.