Trade minister Suresh Prabhu. The Indian commerce ministry is organizing the meeting after the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO, held in Buenos Aires in December, failed to reach a consensus. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MInt
Trade minister Suresh Prabhu. The Indian commerce ministry is organizing the meeting after the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO, held in Buenos Aires in December, failed to reach a consensus. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MInt

India to seek guidance on future of multilateral trade at WTO ministerial meet

The decision of US President Donald Trump to raise tariffs on steel and aluminium beyond its commitment under the WTO is expected to dominate discussions at the WTO meeting

New Delhi: India will seek guidance on the future of the multilateral trading system from 50 trade envoys at a two-day World Trade Organization (WTO) informal ministerial meeting in New Delhi starting on Monday amid attempts by the US to undermine WTO rules, raising fears of trade wars.

The Indian commerce ministry is organizing the meeting after the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO, held in Buenos Aires in December, failed to reach a consensus on how to take forward negotiations on key issues such as agriculture and services.

“The objective of the ministerial meeting is to facilitate an informal and frank exchange of views on the agenda for negotiations at the WTO as well as institutional issues. Participants could also discuss any other theme of common interest to all members," a commerce ministry official said, requesting anonymity.

The decision of US President Donald Trump to raise tariffs on steel and aluminium beyond its commitment under the WTO on the grounds of security is expected to dominate discussions at the meeting.

India has termed the move discriminatory and demanded an exclusion as granted to key allies of the US such as Canada and Mexico, while the European Union has threatened to retaliate by hiking tariffs on a set of goods it imports from the US.

The US started systematically undermining the WTO after the Donald Trump administration took charge in November 2016.

It is now questioning the very basic principles on which the WTO is founded. The rules-based system that drive WTO through the dispute settlement mechanism—so far the only arm of the multilateral body that was functioning well—is now being threatened by the US.

The US wants to go back to the pre-WTO system where abiding by a verdict of the dispute settlement mechanism was not binding and the winning country had to sit down and negotiate with the losing party, which could end up giving more powers to large developed countries to arm-twist their small economic partners.

“Too often, members seem to believe they can gain concessions through lawsuits that they could never get at the negotiating table. We have to ask ourselves whether this is good for the institution and whether the current litigation structure makes sense," US trade representative Robert Lighthizer said in a speech at the Buenos Aires meeting.

The US move to block the appointment of new members to the WTO appellate body that resolves trade disputes is also likely to dominate discussions in New Delhi.

The US will be represented at the meeting by deputy US trade representative Dennis Shea, while China will be represented by its vice minister of commerce Wang Shouwen.

The US has also questioned the special and differential treatment enjoyed by large developing countries like India and China which gives them more time to comply with WTO rules than developed countries.

Trade minister Suresh Prabhu has said that special and differential treatment remains a critical aspect of the WTO’s framework and that this is non-negotiable for India.

Ram Upendra Das, head of New Delhi-based Centre for Regional Trade, said India and developing countries must form coalitions both with developed and other developing countries at the WTO. “We should welcome new approaches and move forward on new issues," he added.

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