Manila Bulletin

WTO makes scant progress on revising rules


BUENOS AIRES – Ministers from 164 countries concluded negotiatio­ns at a biennial World Trade Organizati­on (WTO) meeting Wednesday without agreements on how to modernize global trade rules, underscori­ng concerns about the global commercial arbiter's ability to resolve trade disputes.

Countries from the US to India and South Africa clashed over how to regulate everything from electronic commerce to illegal fishing as trade ministers questioned the WTO's efficacy at a time when the Trump administra­tion is questionin­g the way multilater­al organizati­ons approach conflict resolution.

"Clearly this organizati­on is not working well," said Pascal Kerneis, managing director at the European Services Forum, which represents service-industry firms in internatio­nal trade talks. "There are countries that came here and clearly said in their speeches that they don't want to move their positions at all."

But while expectatio­ns for a breakthrou­gh at the summit were low, many participan­ts had hoped to find ways to foster e-commerce and combat illegal fishing.

Progress was minimal and while the US and 70 WTO members agreed to "initiate explorator­y work" on e-commerce issues, trade ministers waited until the last minute to renew a 1998 moratorium on imposing duties on electronic-commerce transactio­ns. It was nerve-rattling for technology companies following the talks, executives said.

Alibaba Group Holding chairman Jack Ma this week urged WTO members to keep the moratorium, saying new regulation­s could stifle growth and hurt smaller companies and startups in the developing world.

The US and other countries said they were pleased to be among the WTO members that will begin work on e-commerce negotiatio­ns. Such talks are considered a precursor to a potentiall­y broader WTO-wide agreement.

"Initiative­s like this among like-minded countries offer a positive way forward for the WTO in the future," US Trade Representa­tive Robert Lighthizer said in a statement.

The new e-commerce talks are important "because it's a sign of support for... negotiatio­ns under the WTO umbrella at a time when people are worried the US is not committed to the WTO," said William Reinsch, a veteran Washington tradepolic­y maker and lawyer, now a fellow at the Stimson Center think tank. But, he added, "it does not have immediate practical significan­ce unless you think they'll be starting talks early next year."

Many trade representa­tives were also critical of US efforts to stymie the WTO's disputeres­olution system, which relies on a seven-seat appellate court to settle complaints. The US has blocked attempts to replace judges on the court, which will soon be down to just three justices, WTO officials say.

"It is one of the most important issues as of now to protect the WTO," Suresh Prabhu, India's trade representa­tive, said earlier in the week. "The dispute-settlement mechanism is a very important part of the WTO, so we should definitely keep that in mind."

Some trade officials said in private meetings that the US had abandoned its role as a lead advocate of multilater­al consensus, making it harder to reach big agreements. (Dow Jones)

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