Malaysian Finance Minister opposes ‘new issues’

by Lean Ka-Min

Penang, 11 May 2001 -- Malaysia’s Finance Minister, Daim Zainuddin, has criticized attempts to introduce new issues into the ambit of the World Trade Organization (WTO), pointing to their potential adverse consequences for developing countries.

Speaking at the Asian Development Bank conference in Honolulu on 8 May, Daim noted that among the new issues proposed for inclusion in the negotiating agenda at the November WTO Ministerial meeting in Doha are investment, competition policy, trade facilitation, environment, labour standards and government procurement.

In his keynote address on “Globalization? The Emerging Development Challenges:

New Issues, Old Agenda”, Daim said after the failure of the last Ministerial meeting in Seattle to launch a new round of trade talks, developing countries were wary of efforts to bring issues, which were previously rejected, back to the WTO negotiation table.

The new issues, he said, have wide-ranging implications for developing countries in managing their own economies. Added Daim: “I note with concern that these ‘new issues’ may not provide benefits to all developing countries as advocated by (their) proponents.”

There was little doubt, the Finance Minister said, that the intention of the developed countries in pursuing a new WTO negotiating round was to discuss the same “old agenda”, namely, to continue with rapid and deep liberalization but paying little attention to its consequences. Further liberalization would enable multinational corporations from these countries to freely enter developing-country markets, thereby paving the way for developed countries to consolidate and deepen their influence in the developing world.

On the investment issue, for example, Daim pointed out that acceptance by developing countries of WTO rules in this area could limit their capabilities to regulate the multinationals or to assist domestic firms.

He said the new issues constituted a diversion from the original spirit of the multilateral trading system, adding that Malaysia believed these subjects should be discussed in the appropriate fora; thus, labour standards, for instance, should be the purview of the International Labour Organization.

What should be the focus of the trading system, emphasized Daim, is “the full and effective implementation” of commitments entered into with the coming into force of the WTO in 1995. “For example, there still remain a number of incidences of high tariffs in developed countries that should be brought down to comply with the spirit of free trade,” he said.

Daim underscored the urgent need to redress the imbalances in the present WTO agreements especially with regard to the rights of developing nations to promote their exports, which not only face obstacles in the form of high tariffs but may also be curtailed by rising protection through non-tariff barriers such as anti-dumping measures, countervailing duties and imposition of unreasonable standards.

In this context, Daim expressed concern that the introduction of the new issues will dilute the focus on current issues being handled by the WTO.

In addition, the Malaysian minister said his country felt the agenda for the WTO over the next few years was already full, taken up by many outstanding issues.  These issues include the implementation of existing agreements, the initiation of the built-in agenda for agriculture and services negotiations, and the mandated reviews of such agreements as TRIPS and TRIMs.

“These activities will surely keep the WTO activity calendar full even without the new issues.”  - SUNS4984

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