New Delhi: India has convened a mini ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 3-4 September in New Delhi, seen as the first serious attempt to revive the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations. In an interview, Harsha Vardhana Singh, one of the four WTO deputy directors general, said he expects a clear road map to emerge from the talks for the proposed WTO ministerial meeting later this year in November-December. The Doha Round, launched in 2001, was stalled in July last year over differences between advanced and emerging economies, mainly on the level of protection for farmers in developing countries.
The US, European Union, Japan and other developed countries, apart from the Group of 20 (G-20) nations, are expected to attend the New Delhi meeting. Edited excerpts:
Moving forward: WTO deputy director general Harsha Vardhana Singh. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
What are the expectations of WTO from the mini-ministerial that has been convened by India?
This mini-ministerial is a special effort by India to contribute in a positive way to take this (the Doha Round) forward. And hopefully when ministers get together, there will be greater clarity on the manner in which further progress can be made.
But will there be further negotiations on specific issues in this meeting?
That you will have to ask the organizers and the chairs. They may be bringing out some set of issues which they would like to address. So, it will be clear from that. But at present there are two things that are important. One, people get together and look at some kind of a road map because now we are at the last part of discussion. It is important that clarity in (the) road map comes up. And second is that people use that understanding subsequently to engage in a more substantive way because the substantive agreement requires time.
The director general of WTO, Pascal Lamy, has already had meetings with various delegations on the way to go forward. He will also be contributing certain perspectives, as will (a) large number of the ministers, many of whom are representing specific groups. So, it is a very important meeting. Hopefully, some positive understanding will come out, which is not to be decried because it is required to move forward.
But do you expect countries to open their negotiating cards, which they have kept close to their chest so far, in this meeting?
The fact that all the countries that have been invited are coming shows that they are interested. The need for cards to be opened in a substantive negotiating context arises when you negotiate substantive issues. But that is different kind of negotiations. This will hopefully result in some kind of positive move taking the process forward, and there is no reason why ministers should withhold what is there in their mind because it is important that whatever is in their mind for the way forward should be taken into account.
WTO has said that global trade would contract around 10% in 2009. So, common sense would suggest that countries would protect their own interests more vigorously in such a scenario. What makes you optimistic that substantive progress in multilateral negotiations is possible in the days ahead?
What is happening is that there are protectionist measures, but these measures are much less than what one would expect under these circumstances. That’s because of the WTO system being in place, the monitoring process that the DG (director general) of WTO has put in place and the review and discussion of that process, which keeps everybody under scrutiny. Now, in that context sometimes common sense can also say that we need to have success, we need to have a system that makes it better for us rather than continue to take protectionist measures. The kind of common sense you are talking about, if countries follow that path, there would be massive protectionism because we have had tariff reductions that are historic by any standards. So, those are major pressure points. But you did not have such kind of protectionism. So, people are concerned about that and they want to deal with it. So, under that situation, common sense would say let’s have a stronger system and one of the signals the world community can give is to take the Doha process forward.
India’s commerce secretary, Rahul Khullar, recently said that as many negotiators at Geneva have changed and many are going to change since the last round of negotiations, it will be difficult to make significant progress in talks as negotiations are about relationships and mutual trust. Your comments.
No, I don’t know whether he said it. The way you have framed it may be different (from) the way he said it. The point is when new negotiators come (to the table) they have to develop a relationship, but they don’t come in a vacuum. They come in a continuity of process and they work within a framework of interest which is there. Sometimes when you are faced with key decisions even if the negotiators are new, if countries feel that this is in their national interest, they will take those decisions. The starting point of that assessment is how the political leadership is engaged. What we see is that the political leadership is now engaged even if they are also new. Khullar is correct that if you have developed a relationship and trust, it is easier to go forward, but at the same time I don’t think he said it will not be possible to move forward.
Do you see any significant change in India’s stand with a new trade minister, Anand Sharma, at the helm?
I don’t see any significant change in stand as India has always said that it has its national interest to protect, but that does not mean that the talks have not progressed. One of the key aspects that India was unhappy with in July 2008, the volume trigger of 140, was actually addressed three months later. It was addressed at the level of G-7 (Group of Seven) and the next step is to take it and multilateralize. (In the 2008 Doha negotiations, it was proposed that developing countries such as India can apply safeguard duties on special agri-products, which will see zero or low tariff cuts because of their sensitivity, only if imports of such products surge by 140%. India rejected the proposal, holding the threshold to be too high.) So, we have moved forward from July 2008. But people have maintained their national interest and no government will give up national interest. People have different ways of doing things, but each minister carries the weight of national interest.
So, what are the contentious issues that need further deliberations?
In each area there are a few contentious issues. In agriculture, you have some aspects of SSM (special safeguard mechanism). Some members are also keen on certain aspects of special products—cotton is an important issue, which has to be dealt with—in fisheries subsidies there are certain issues, in intellectual property rights, geographical indicator is an issue.
So, in a number of areas, you have some contentious issues, but there are not many. You can count them on your hand. And those which actually have been dealt with are a lot.
At present, clearly the focus is on bilateral trade agreements. Does it undermine the importance of multilateral negotiations?
Bilateral trade agreements are allowed under WTO. So, it is not something illegal. What is important is that they are allowed, provided there is certain coverage and third parties should not be adversely affected. And whenever they do that, they keep in mind WTO rules. We have a process in place now for examination of these bilateral agreements. Ultimately, the important areas of concern like agricultural subsidies, anti-dumping and standards, cannot be sorted out bilaterally. You need multilateral fora to address them.