Even before it opens on 10 December, the Buenos Aires trade ministerial conference is mired in controversy. More than 60 individuals from 20 non-governmental organizations accredited by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to participate in the meeting have been denied permission to enter Argentina, the land of tango, on security grounds. Deborah James, a well-known and respected activist from Washington which coordinates the civil society network called “Our World Is Not For Sale” asked the WTO director general to urgently remedy the situation by intervening with the Argentinean government to “reverse its decision.” “And if the [Argentinean] government maintains its violation of the host country agreement, to bring this issue immediately to the General Council and reschedule the [MC11 or the 11th ministerial conference] when a proper host can be found,” she wrote to Roberto Azevedo, the WTO director general on 4 December. Clearly, something went wrong between the WTO and the Argentinean government and it is not clear who is to be blamed for this fiasco.
Be that as it may, the Buenos Aires meeting is being held at a particularly difficult period with the multilateral trading system being reduced to tatters. Last Friday, “the Trump administration has pulled out of the United Nations’ ambitious plans to create a more humane global strategy on migration, saying involvement in the process interferes with American sovereignty, and runs counter to US immigration policies,” Partick Wintour, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, wrote on 3 December. Significantly, the announcement of the US withdrawal from the UN Global Compact came hours before the opening of the UN global conference on migration that began on Monday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Washington is also adopting intransigent positions on multilateral trade issues scheduled to be discussed in Buenos Aires. It has blocked a ministerial declaration on grounds that it accords primacy to the WTO for global trade liberalization. The US says the trade and development architecture as set out in the founding principles of the WTO must be radically changed so to ensure that India and other developing countries are denied special and differential flexibilities.
More important, a senior US trade official who visited Geneva last month dampened the prospects for credible outcomes in agriculture, including the permanent solution for public stockholding programmes for food security, on grounds that the US grain lobbies will be adversely affected. The US simply wants the Buenos Aires meeting to be a vegetarian roadshow for discussing the institutional reform of the WTO without taking any credible decisions concerning the issues of the Daridra Narayanas, a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi for the wretched of the earth.
Against this backdrop, how the Narendra Modi government is going to press its core developmental concerns at Buenos Aires remains to be seen. The performance of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) trade ministers over the years at major WTO ministerial summits is somewhat mixed. To start with, in 1999, at the WTO’s third ministerial meeting in Seattle, the first NDA trade minister late Murasoli Maran refused to fall prey to US President Bill Clinton’s pitch for bringing controversial social clauses into global trade. Clinton tried hard to persuade Maran at a luncheon meeting to agree to social clauses such as labour, environment, and other issues into global trading system. Maran simply said No.
Later, the same Maran, in 2001 at the launch of the Doha trade negotiations in Doha, Qatar, almost blocked the meeting on four controversial Singapore issues—trade and investment, trade and competition policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation—on grounds that they are not avowedly part of the WTO agenda. During a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to apprise him about the developments when the Doha meeting was almost collapsing, Vajpayee told Maran that he should do what he thinks is right for India. Subsequently, Maran put a tough condition that the four controversial issues will only be negotiated after there is “explicit” consensus among WTO members at the fifth ministerial meeting in September 2003.
After Maran, the next NDA trade minister Arun Shourie, who was there only for few months, took a tough stand on the issue of differentiation among developing countries at an informal mini-ministerial summit in Sydney in December 2002. US trade representative ambassador Robert Zoellick and the European Union trade commissioner Pascal Lamy tried hard to put India and other developing countries like South Korea and Singapore in the category of countries that cannot avail of the flexibilities in the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for addressing public health emergencies.
The third NDA trade minister Arun Jaitley during the Vajpayee government also took strong nationalist positions at the WTO’s fifth ministerial meeting in Cancun, in 2003. Jaitley formed a formidable alliance with then Malaysian trade minister Rafidah binti Aziz to oppose the four Singapore issues at Cancun. Many developing countries rallied behind Aziz-Jaitley leadership to ensure that the four issues were kept out of the agenda. Thus, the first three NDA trade ministers worked with Prime Minister Vajpayee who gave them a free hand to decide issues as they deemed fit.
The fourth NDA trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman under Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the Indian delegation at the WTO’s 10th ministerial conference in December 2015. Sitharaman, for inexplicable reasons, allowed India’s core demands—on the permanent solution for public stockholding programmes for food security, the special safeguard mechanism for addressing unforeseen surges in imports, and the continuation of the Doha Development Agenda negotiations among others—to be eclipsed at the Nairobi meeting. She allowed the cotton subsidies for poor Indian farmers to be discontinued from this year.
The fifth and current trade minister Suresh Prabhu comes to Buenos Aires when India’s unresolved issues, including the permanent solution with legal certainty and other issues, remains to be addressed. Fortunately for Prabhu, India has built solid support among a large majority of developing and poorest countries in Geneva for rallying behind New Delhi’s core concerns to be finalized at Buenos Aires.
India has ensured support from 100 countries to oppose the new issues that include a new mandate for electronic commerce, investment facilitation and disciplines for micro, small and medium enterprises. In a way, the battle lines are drawn for the Buenos Aires meeting: between the new issues brought by the European Union with some 50 countries on the one side, and India and 100 developing and poorest countries on the other who are calling for resolving the unfinished bread-and-butter issues in the Doha work program.
But much would depend on how Prabhu forcefully articulates India’s positions during the closed-door meetings where ministers need total concentration and tenacity. It is also a litmus test for Prabhu as to how he harnesses the support of other developing countries for addressing the challenges facing more than 400 million Indian farmers at Buenos Aires.