The World Trade Organization failed to conclude any new agreements at its biennial meeting this week, but U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief is hailing as a victory the formation of factions by some WTO countries to push their own interests. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement on Thursday that the ministerial conference in Buenos Aires “will be remembered as the moment when the impasse at the WTO was broken.”
The assessment was in contrast to dejected fellow WTO trade ministers who lamented the 164-member trade body’s inability to reach new agreements on electronic commerce, agriculture and curbs to fisheries subsidies. Despite his sharp criticism of the 164-member trade body’s inability to negotiate new agreements, Lighthizer managed to attract enough allies at the meeting to form smaller groups of countries to pursue new rules for open electronic commerce and to break down unreasonable trade barriers on food safety.
The U.S. also agreed to team up with the European Union and Japan to work within the WTO to combat the kinds of market-distorting trade polices practiced by China, such as subsidies to state-owned enterprises and technology transfer requirements. “Many members recognized that the WTO must pursue a fresh start in key areas so that like-minded WTO members and their constituents are not held back by the few members that are not ready to act,” added Lighthizer, who left Buenos Aires the night before the conference concluded on Wednesday.
Lighthizer’s endorsement of a new direction for the WTO talks may ease fears that Trump will pull out of the trade body, as he once suggested during his election campaign last year. But the statement made no mention of U.S. actions to block WTO judicial appointments, widely seen as a gambit to win reforms in its dispute settlement system.
The U.S. trade agency and India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry traded thinly veiled barbs at each other for holding up progress in Buenos Aires. Lighthizer blamed “one WTO member with an extreme position” for blocking a short ministerial declaration expressing the shared views of 164 members. A source familiar with the WTO negotiations said that India would not agree to the statement’s final wording. U.S. officials had previously refused to include references to the “centrality” of the global trading system and the need for trade to drive development.
India has long insisted that the WTO follow through on the development mandates of the previous Doha round of negotiations before moving on to new areas such as e-commerce. New Delhi also nearly blocked a routine renewal of the WTO’s 1998 tariff moratorium on cross-border digital downloads, meeting participants said.
India’s post-conference statement singled out U.S. opposition to a deal on agriculture, specifically India’s demands for permanent tariff rules to promote food security for developing countries.
“Unfortunately, the strong position of one member against agricultural reform based on current WTO mandates and rules led to a deadlock without any outcome on agriculture or even a work program for the next two years,” India’s Commerce ministry said. Lighthizer added that he was “proud to defend the interests of U.S. stakeholders at the WTO, including our farmers and ranchers.”
He said that U.S. agriculture interests needed WTO rules based on today’s market realities, rather than the “outdated and unworkable” negotiating framework set when the Doha round was launched in 2001.