WTO struggles to hone global trade vision after US turnabout

BUENOS AIRES • Trade ministers looked set to wrap up their biennial World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting without having reached a single agreement yesterday, still reeling from criticism brought by the US, once the driving force behind the organisation.

The ministers gathered in Buenos Aires were never expected to agree great reforms, but a discordant intervention by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer effectively left the conference adrift, since the WTO requires consensus - unanimity among all 164 members - to reach any agreement, Reuters reported.

Even the perfunctory joint ministerial statement looked uncertain, the report said.

Driven by President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy and a preference for bilateral deals, the United States had already blocked ambassadors from drafting a text in Geneva, rejecting references to the WTO's central role in the global trading system and to trade as a driver of development.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said the chairman of the conference, Argentina's former foreign minister Susana Malcorra, was still hoping to get ministers to agree on one text later yesterday.

The failure to reach any major deals means negotiations on the same topics will go on into next year, with no deadline and no heavyweight ministerial momentum to get an agreement.

Mr Lighthizer told the WTO ministers on Monday that it was impossible to negotiate new rules while many of the current rules were not being followed, and that the WTO was losing its focus and becoming too litigation-focused.

He said the WTO should make markets more efficient, reducing overcapacity and the influence of state-owned enterprises, widely seen as a swipe at China.

Many trade experts disagree with parts of his analysis and are dismayed that the US is vetoing new judicial appointments at the WTO, which has plunged the settlement of trade disputes into crisis.

Separately, Singapore, Australia and Japan co-chaired a ministerial meeting on electronic commerce on the sidelines of the Buenos Aires conference, Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said in a joint press release yesterday. Ministers representing 70 WTO members and over 75 per cent of global trade issued a joint statement committing to work together towards future negotiations on e-commerce, MTI said.

Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang said: "E-commerce presents developing members and LDCs (least developed countries) an opportunity to leapfrog, overcome traditional market barriers, and allow for more inclusive participation in global trade."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'WTO struggles to hone global trade vision after US turnabout'. Print Edition | Subscribe