Tepid trade-offs: The Hindu Editorial on the WTO 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi

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The latest meeting of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) apex decision-making body concluded late on Friday with precious little progress on key issues that affect global trade, despite extending deliberations by a day. To be clear, hopes for any significant outcomes from the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi were not high to begin with. Yet, this was an important moment for the WTO to deliver on its mandate amid an increasingly fractious environment for the very rules of trade it seeks to enforce. The intervening period has delivered significant shocks to the global trading architecture such as the ripple effects of conflicts in some parts of the world, the disruptions on critical shipment routes that are expected to linger for long, and recalibrations in supply chains to reduce dependence on single suppliers such as China. An increasing inward-looking tendency among nations has also catalysed isolationist, tariff-heavy trade policies that run adrift of the WTO’s primary purpose of open trade for the benefit of all. The Abu Dhabi declaration does refer to some of the challenges, such as the need to ensure open, inclusive and resilient supply chains, but there is little of substance beyond lip service.

Divergences between the WTO’s 164 member-countries persisted on most issues carried forward from Geneva (MC12), including areas of particular interest to India, such as a permanent solution in agriculture for public stock holding to ensure domestic food security or subsidies to the fisheries sector. The WTO Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has noted that the agriculture deliberations, in the works for over two decades now, have made some progress as there is finally a text to work with that the body will strive to clinch in future parleys. The exemption from customs duties for e-commerce, that India had sought an end to, citing the adverse impact on countries’ revenues, will now carry on for at least two more years. Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has nuanced this outcome stating that India is “not necessarily” fully opposed to them. Prospects for the resuscitation of WTO’s dispute resolution body, rendered defunct for four years, remain bleak, though the Geneva commitment to revive the vital body by 2024 was reiterated. A key win for India at the MC13 was its successful efforts with South Africa to thwart an attempt that was led by China and backed by over 120 countries, to introduce an investment facilitation pact into the WTO framework. Going forward, India will have to redouble efforts to retain policy space for sensitive sectors, especially farms. The WTO itself must do much more to stay relevant in an increasingly polarised world. That members find it convenient to tout its failed biennial meetings as successes is a sad commentary on its waning efficacy.

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