Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Feb18/05)
2 February 2018
Third World Network
Major ICs step up efforts to smuggle E-com pluri at WTO
Published in SUNS #8610 dated 30 January 2018
Davos, 29 Jan (D. Ravi Kanth) - Major industrialized countries and
their developing country allies have stepped up their efforts to smuggle-in
plurilateral negotiations on electronic commerce by stealth at the
World Trade Organization while erasing the unresolved issues of the
Doha multilateral trade agenda, several trade ministers and envoys
An early indication of what is in the offing on the plurilateral project
of the major industrialized countries, including the United States,
on e-commerce, came at an informal trade ministerial summit on Friday
in Davos on the margins of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF).
Under the dubious slogan of a "political dialogue", major
industrialized countries and their allies are attempting to bring
plurilateral negotiations on e-commerce by ignoring the 1998 work
program which was multilaterally agreed by all members, said a trade
envoy who asked not to be identified.
During the three-hour meeting, trade ministers from industrialized
countries and their developing country allies pressed in chorus for
plurilateral negotiations in e-commerce.
While some of the industrialized countries present at the meeting
also flagged other issues - investment facilitation and disciplines
for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) - the United States
Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer said the plurilateral
route is not viable for all areas of rule-making.
Ambassador Lighthizer said only e-commerce is the suitable candidate
for plurilateral negotiations, said a participant who asked not to
South Africa and India among others demanded prior multilateral consensus
before approaching any plurilateral initiatives on new issues.
South Africa's trade minister Rob Davies who spoke before Ambassador
Lighthizer said pursuing plurilateral initiatives without multilateral
consensus can also be easily replicated for improving special and
differential flexibilities and securing policy space by developing
countries in other areas.
Davies referred to the proposal for improving special and differential
flexibilities mooted since 2001 by more than 100 countries of the
A large number of trade ministers and envoys present at the meeting
demanded an immediate resolution to the continued impasse at the Appellate
Body in which the US has repeatedly blocked filling of three vacancies
on unreasonable grounds, said a trade minister after the meeting.
But the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Robert
Lighthizer, who attended the meeting, remained stoically silent on
the calls issued by almost all participants during the meeting, said
another trade minister who asked not to be quoted.
Many industrialized countries, including the USTR, raised the issue
of "differentiation" of developing countries - "the
question of how to take into account different and evolving levels
of development" of members.
The USTR said, "exemptions are not the best way forward, particularly
among the biggest economies."
Many participants at the meeting also emphasized the importance of
reaching an agreement on fisheries subsidies by end 2019 but the USTR
cautioned that it cannot accept a low-level ambition in the final
South Africa, India, China, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey among
others called for resolving the unfinished issues.
But major industrialized and several developing countries did not
mention the Doha trade negotiations at all.
During the interventions, Korea's trade minister, Mr. Hyun Chong Kim,
voiced his concern over the punitive US safeguard duties on solar
cells and large washing machines, and said that members must ensure
that trade remedies such as anti-dumping, countervailing, and safeguard
actions are consistent with the WTO rules.
Participants, including the WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo,
welcomed India's initiative to convene an informal ministerial meeting
on March 19.
The three-hour meeting attended by trade ministers from the US, Argentina,
Australia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Guyana, Japan, Korea, New
Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and trade
envoys from China, India, Singapore, Mexico, Kenya, Indonesia, Colombia,
and Cambodia, brought to the fore divergent views among members on
both old and new issues such as plurilateral initiatives for electronic
commerce, disciplines for micro, small, and medium enterprises, and
trade and gender issues.
WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo said there is a need for "political
dialogue on all issues".
The challenge is how to get a "meaningful agreement based on
multilateral consensus and for this trade-offs are important to make
it possible," Azevedo said, according to a participant who asked
not to be quoted.
The Swiss economy, education and research minister Johann N. Schneider-Amman
who hosted the meeting issued a chair's summary at the end of the
According to the summary, ministers and trade envoys who spoke at
the meeting expressed "disappointment" about lack of further
convergence and outcomes at the WTO's eleventh ministerial conference
in Buenos Aires last month.
"With reference to the decision on Fisheries Subsidies, a need
to complete the negotiations by 2019 was emphasized frequently [during
the meeting]," the summary noted.
"Moreover, in many interventions, the adoption of Joint Ministerial
Statements by groups of Members was referred to as a significant development
at MC11 [eleventh ministerial conference]."
The joint statements refer to the plurilateral initiatives on electronic
commerce, investment facilitation, services domestic regulation, and
gender and trade.
The chair's summary suggested that the WTO is facing important challenges
and that fundamental reflections, including at political level, will
be required on issues where major divergences exist.
The participants, according to the summary, underscored the "need
to preserve and enhance the functioning of the multilateral trading
system and the existing WTO framework, in particular: the work of
the regular WTO bodies; and the WTO's dispute settlement mechanism,
with particular concern being expressed about the situation of the
"Among horizontal challenges faced in multilateral negotiations,
the question how to take into account different and evolving levels
of development of Members was highlighted," the summary noted.
The summary is not a reflection of what WTO members want as it was
dominated by the proponents of new issues and not of the large majority
of WTO members, South Africa's trade minister Rob Davies told SUNS
(see Davies' interview in separate story).
Trade ministers and envoys echoed their respective positions on unresolved
Doha issues as well as new issues such as plurilateral initiatives
for electronic commerce, disciplines for micro, small, and medium
enterprises, investment facilitation, and trade and gender.
The United States Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer
said the US wants an ambitious plurilateral outcome on electronic
commerce and a comprehensive agreement on fisheries subsidies.
Ambassador Lighthizer said the US doesn't think the eleventh ministerial
conference is a disappointment suggesting that Washington had low
The USTR said he would concur with his South African counterpart Rob
Davies that all sectors - investment facilitation, disciplines for
micro, small, and medium enterprises, and trade and gender - are not
suitable for plurilateral outcomes.
But only in some areas like e-commerce plurilateral action is possible
to make a forward movement in the WTO.
Plurilateral outcome on e-commerce can establish a good standard at
the WTO, Ambassador Lighthizer suggested.
He said the US remains optimistic that the WTO can take things forward.
"We reject the notion that most WTO members can be exempted from
WTO rules, especially the large economies [China, India, Brazil],"
the USTR maintained.
Three issues are important for the US, according to a trade minister
who asked not to be quoted.
They are development (thus bringing in differentiation), transparency,
and an ambitious outcome on fisheries subsidies, the trade minister
At the meeting, Argentina which spoke first expressed support for
all the new issues.
Korea said the WTO must reflect the changing realities, particularly
the need for rules for e-commerce in the context of the fourth industrial
Korea's trade minister Hyun Chong Kim expressed sharp concern over
the safeguard duties, arguing that they must be consistent with the
WTO rules. Minister Kim also said the prolonged vacancies at the Appellate
Body are not desirable.
Russia, Singapore, the European Union, Norway, and Pakistan among
others supported the new issues.
The EU's trade commissioner Ms Cecilia Malmstrom called for new "approaches",
saying business as usual will not be acceptable.
Malmstrom called for immediate work on the new issues.
Several other countries - Costa Rica, Colombia, Nigeria and Brazil
among others - also spoke in favour of e-commerce and other new issues
such as investment facilitation.
India said the multilateral route must be the basis for further work
at the WTO for building trust and confidence.
India's trade envoy Ambassador J. S. Deepak, who spoke at the meeting
in the absence of his trade minister Suresh Prabhu who had to leave
Davos because of his country's Republic Day celebrations, said negotiations
must be resumed on the basis of the existing agenda while simultaneously
addressing institutional issues, particularly the impasse at the Appellate
As regards new issues, India said they must be approached only on
the basis of multilateral consensus.
China's trade envoy Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen urged the participants
to make a "balanced" assessment on the relationship between
current WTO functions and their commitments.
The Chinese trade envoy said the WTO system is indispensable for trade
and cooperation. He said China will pursue both old issues based on
previous negotiated ministerial decisions and also ready to address
new issues that are relevant for the future.
South Africa's trade minister Rob Davies expressed grave concern at
the manner in which countries after failing to secure multilateral
consensus went out and issued joint statements for plurilateral initiatives.
If such practices are adopted then more than 100 countries of the
G90 can go out of the WTO and frame rules on stronger special and
differential flexibilities for policy space as part of a plurilateral
outcome and later bring it to the WTO for all members to follow, Davies
Brazil which spoke immediately after the US at the meeting said special
and differential treatment flexibilities were part of the balanced
concession in the Uruguay Round.
Thailand called for addressing the unresolved Doha issues in the Doha
Development Agenda while Indonesia said members must pursue issues
based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In short, the battle on the dubious plurilateral project which lacks
integrity and consistency with the WTO rules has started taking shape
within a month after the collapse of the WTO's eleventh ministerial
meeting in Buenos Aires last month.
Unless the developing and poorest countries remain vigilant to nip
the plurilateral dialogue in the bud, they might be drawn into the
negotiations by next year, said a trade envoy who asked not to be