A raft of issues relevant for India will come up for discussion at the WTO ministerial
All eyes are on the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference, which will be held in Geneva between November 30 and December 3 and attended by trade ministers and other senior officials from the organisation’s 164 members. This highest decision-making body will seek to address the challenges of making a rules-based multilateral trading system more relevant in a world where bilateral, regional, and mega regional trade agreements have proliferated.
It will also consider a raft of critical issues—in which India has major stakes—such as WTO reforms on special and differentiated treatment of developing countries, public procurement for food security, response to Covid-19, including a patent waiver proposal floated by India and South Africa to fight the pandemic, among others.
India is concerned that developed nations are pushing on reforms that would dilute provisions on S&DT (special and differential treatment) for developing countries, besides trade and environment linkages, dispute monitoring, inclusion of plurilaterals or agreements between few like-minded members to negotiate over particular issues and ending the system of consensus for every decision that must be made.
S&DT allows developing and poor (less developed) countries to enjoy certain benefits, including taking longer time periods for implementing agreements and binding commitments, and measures to increase trading opportunities for them. Currently, any WTO member can designate itself as a developing country and avail these benefits. The US, for instance, believes self-declaration puts the WTO on a path to failed negotiations and institutional irrelevance.
India is opposed to developed countries linking WTO reforms S&DT. Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal has forcefully articulated that to deprive countries, having low per capita income of $600-3,000, of differentiated treatment and to place them alongside those having $60,000-80,000 per capita income is “grossly unfair”.
However, India is open to discussions on classification of developing countries. A lacuna of the WTO indeed is the absence of a proper definition of this although two-thirds of members classify themselves as developing. The way forward is to adopt a procedure wherein each nation, keeping its national interests in mind, makes withdrawal strategies to claim S&DT.
According to a policy brief prepared by the think-tank ICRIER and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on “New approaches to strengthen the multilateral trading system”, another idea could be ‘graduation whereby as and when member nations meet certain objective criteria, they will not be subject to developing country status’.
India’s firm stance on S&DT is reflected in its position on the WTO revised draft text on fisheries subsidies; India seeks greater balance and fairness to provide the developing world the policy space for developing the fisheries sector with a longer transition period to phase out subsidies. The country must similarly meet the formidable challenge of trade and environment linkages as argued by Abhijit Das of IIFT.
Despite the urgency of addressing climate change, it must resist the moves of developed countries to provide a legal justification for imposing restrictions on international trade, supposedly for protecting the environment. Developing nations fear this is aimed at curtailing their exports and used by the developed world for protectionist purposes.
India must also aggressively push for a permanent solution to the issue of public stockholding for food security purposes and its patents waiver proposal amid indications that rich nations might defer or block decisions on these matters. India’s best strategy at the ministerial is to make constructive suggestions on strengthening WTO as it has vital interests in a rules-based multilateral trading order while firmly standing up for the developing world.