TWN Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Nov20/19)
18 November 2020
Third World Network

Biden to pursue trade & labour and trade & environment issues
Published in SUNS #9235 dated 18 November 2020

Geneva, 17 Nov (D. Ravi Kanth) – The United States President-elect Joe Biden signaled on 16 November that Washington is going to pursue trade and labour and trade and environment in new trade agreements, a move that could subject developing countries to onerous and burdensome conditions.

In some live remarks from his residence in Delaware on 16 November, President-elect Biden said that he has told world leaders that his administration will invest in American workers and make them more competitive and include labour union leaders and environmentalists at the table in any trade negotiations.

Biden said his administration is not looking for punitive measures, stating that “the idea that we are poking our finger in the eyes of our friends and embracing autocrats makes no sense to me.”

Trade and labour and trade and environment, which formed part of the controversial “social clauses”, were rejected by developing countries at the World Trade Organization’s third ministerial conference in Seattle, Washington State in 1999.

The Clinton administration had brought these two issues to Seattle despite intense opposition from developing countries at the meeting. Subsequently, these two issues were played down by successive US administrations.

Asked whether the Biden administration would consider joining the newly concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes China, the President-elect declined to answer directly, but suggested that the US is unlikely to join RCEP, which “is a less ambitious agreement”.

The Biden administration has so far not suggested how it would revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement from which the outgoing Trump administration walked out on in 2016.

Many US businesses are hoping that President-elect Biden will join the TPP that was negotiated by the Obama administration.

The TPP agreement is heavily tilted in favour of American pharmaceutical companies, electronic commerce, and financial services among others.

After the US walked out from the TPP, it was concluded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement by the rest of the TPP participants such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam among others.

Biden noted that the US makes up 25 percent of the world’s trade capacity. “We need to be aligned with other democracies, another 25 percent or more, so we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.”

The Biden administration also raised the bar on “Buy American” products and policies, with the President-elect saying that “from autos to our stockpiles, we are going to buy American.”

“No government contracts will be given to companies that don’t make their products here,” Biden emphasized, during the questions-and-answers session with reporters.


Meanwhile, in a separate development at the WTO, 19 countries have declared their intention to begin from January next year “structured discussions” on trade and environmental sustainability.

In what appears to be an attempt to pave the way for launching plurilateral negotiations at the WTO’s 12th ministerial conference (MC12) in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan in June 2021, the 19 countries – Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, the European Union, Fiji, Iceland, Korea, Liechtenstein, Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Senegal, Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, and the United Kingdom – said that “environmental sustainability should be one of the guiding principles of the wider reform of the WTO.”

In their proposal contained in document Job/TE/67 and issued on 12 November, the 19 participants said that they “intend to organize structured discussions for interested WTO Members as well as a dialogue with external stakeholders.”

The participants argued that their “work is intended to complement and support the work of the CTE (Committee on Trade and Environment) and other relevant WTO Committees and Bodies.”

The participants, however, appear to remain silent on the market access aspects of Trade and Environmental Sustainability, said an analyst, who asked not to be quoted.

“Invariably, negotiations of new agreements at the WTO involve market access,” the analyst suggested.

In their proposal, the proponents said that they plan to hold “dialogue with external stakeholders, including the business community, civil society, international organizations, and academic institutions” to bring their expertise and experience to the table.

“The structured discussions will organize regular meetings, with a first meeting [in] early 2021,” the participants said, suggesting that “participation will be open to all WTO Members.”

According to the participants, “the structured discussions intend to inform regularly on their work, including at meetings of Heads of Delegations, the General Council and the CTE.”

The proponents said that “the structured discussions are not meant to duplicate other initiatives in the WTO, or indeed any other international or global initiative as well as existing WTO agreements and mandates.”

The 19 countries urged all “WTO Members to join our open effort to enhance environmental sustainability in international trade and actively participate in this work. Nothing in this communication compels any supporter to join any environmental-sustainability initiative at the WTO.”

The proponents said they plan to inform trade ministers at the 12th Ministerial Conference in Nur Sultan, next year, about their discussions and “where appropriate, propose concrete deliverables, initiatives and next steps.”

They highlighted “the importance of multilateral environmental agreements, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), among others.”

Echoing the call made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) and the International Resource Panel (IRP), the participants argued that “trade and environmental objectives and policies should be mutually supportive.”

The proponents argued that “international trade and trade policy, as key enablers of the transition towards a climate neutral, resource efficient, circular global economy, need to support global efforts towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and international environmental commitments.”

The 19 countries said that “the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need to diversify and strengthen the resilience and sustainability of global supply chains to ensure stability of trade in the face of global challenges, such as pandemics, climate risks and impacts, and wider economic and trade risks presented by environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and natural disasters.”

Significantly, several leading members of the trade and environmental sustainability initiative such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia among others remain vehemently opposed to supporting the waiver for suspending crucial provisions of the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, said a person, who asked not to be quoted.

However, in their proposal, the participants underscored “the need for a sustainable and inclusive approach to trade that considers the legitimate development requirements of many WTO Members.”