Asia-Pacific supports the multilateral trading system
Yann Duval, Witada Anukoonwattaka and Mia Mikic |
06, 2021, 9:11:01 p.m.
The world’s highest trade decision-making body will meet in Geneva on November 30, with just four days at the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) (MC12) to present a set of statements and decisions to convince the world that the multilateral trading system is still functional. This will certainly be a difficult task as it will require consensus among the 164 members of the WTO, 42 of which are also member states or associate members of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
In preparation for MC12, representatives of ESCAP member states and other stakeholders gathered virtually at the Regional Consultation on Harnessing Trade for Faster Recovery and Sustainable Development. ESCAP has organized such informal, non-negotiating forums to allow countries to freely exchange views and, if possible, identify avenues for reaching consensus ahead of most previous WTO Ministerial Conferences. The program of the Consultation included subjects subject to active negotiations (fisheries subsidies, agriculture and certain “joint declaration initiatives” – ie electronic commerce, facilitation of investment for development, small businesses), and those of importance to sustainable development and Covid- 19 recovery – trade and health, trade and climate change / environment and special and differential treatment (SD&T).
At the end of the Consultation, the high-level roundtable focused on broader issues of WTO reform and multilateral cooperation.
The expert presentations on the topics and Member States’ views presented varying priorities associated with the level of economic development and / or trade participation. The opportunity to reveal these perspectives is one of the main objectives of the ESCAP forums, as they enable stakeholders to seek political spaces to bridge their differences through cooperation.
However, the discussions also signaled many common points of view and a real possibility of achieving concrete results at MC12 and beyond. Below is a summary of some of these shared understandings and perspectives from the Asia-Pacific region.
1. There is no readily available substitute for trade as a means of development, nor for the multilateral trading system to ensure a predictable, regulated, open, non-discriminatory and fair trading environment for all. However, the system we currently have does not provide such an environment.
Revitalization and reform of the multilateral trading system is needed. Reforms can focus on its three main functions: negotiating new trade rules, monitoring by ensuring more transparency in member policies, and enforcement by making the appeals system operational again. In the context of the crisis and the response of Covid-19, new subsidies and digital trade rules seem particularly necessary.
2. There is ample evidence that international trade and supply chains have performed much better than feared at the start of the pandemic. The economies of Asia and the Pacific showed, on average, a strong trade recovery. Yet this cannot be sustained without strengthening the resilience of trade and supply chains at regional and global levels, relying on cooperation between the private and public sectors, and diffusing troubling geopolitical tensions.
3. The close collaboration between WTO, WHO, IMF and World Bank is welcome and has yielded results in the area of vaccine distribution. However, more cooperation between organizations is needed, and this cooperation must also be combined with the cooperation of members. Ministers present at MC12 must agree on a concrete framework to deal with trade and health crises – not necessarily just the Covid-19 pandemic. Such a framework will save time, lives and businesses in future crises.
4. The Asia-Pacific countries most in need of access to open markets are low-income countries and least developed countries (LDCs). Special and Differential Treatment (TS&T) must be preserved and strengthened to reduce the gap between developing and developed economies. Beyond SD&T, graduated LDCs should be supported. Aid for Trade and capacity building remain important and should be recognized in upcoming multilateral trade negotiations. Above all, the development dimension of trade must remain taken into account, ensuring that the rules contribute to a more inclusive and environmentally friendly world.
5. Multilateral trade rules should support climate action, in coordination with relevant United Nations organizations. The links between trade and climate change are complex and require moving from an isolated approach to a networked and multi-level approach. This again calls for more multi-agency cooperation (especially between the WTO and the UN) and bilateral and regional initiatives fueling global solutions.
The roundtable suggested that the most desirable outcome of MC12 (particularly from an Asia-Pacific perspective) would be for ministers to agree on the text on fisheries subsidies which is underway. trading for over two decades. This would indicate that WTO members are ready to not only preserve fishery resources, but also to hope for a more efficient and sustainable multilateral trading system, focused on development.