Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, representing India at the Tenth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, conveyed to the chair for the conference that there has to be a specific reference to the Doha in the ministerial declaration for continuing with the negotiations on the outstanding issues after Nairobi. Photo: PTI
Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman, representing India at the Tenth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, conveyed to the chair for the conference that there has to be a specific reference to the Doha in the ministerial declaration for continuing with the negotiations on the outstanding issues after Nairobi. Photo: PTI

WTO Nairobi meet: Deadlock unresolved, talks go to the wire

US insists there should be no mention of Doha ministerial decisions for the proposed work programmes by India on special safeguard mechanism, food security and other decisions

Nairobi: With neither the developing nor the developed countries willing to blink, the ministerial talks of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are going to the wire.

The US, India, China, the European Union and Brazil have been engaged in marathon discussions to strike a compromise. The tenth ministerial conference was due to end on Friday.

Both sides are deadlocked over the proposed deliverables in trade in agriculture and on the demand from developing countries to include continuation of the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) in the final ministerial declaration.

The differences have hardened on several issues in agriculture concerning the developing countries, including the right to impose a special safeguard mechanism to curb unforeseen surges in the import of heavily subsidized farm products, a work programme to arrive at a permanent solution for public stockholding schemes for food security and the trade-distorting food subsidies provided by the US.

After four days of heightened squabbles and bickering between the US on the one side and a large number of developing countries on the other, the prospects for concluding the meeting look pretty bleak.

At the heart of the divide is the US’ insistence that there should be no mention of the Doha ministerial decisions for the proposed work programmes by India on the special safeguard mechanism (SSM), public stockholding programmes for food security, and other decisions.

Responding to draft ministerial texts on the safeguard mechanism and public stockholding programmes for food security issued by the facilitator Joshua Setipa, Lesotho’s trade minister, on Thursday, India, China and Turkey tabled two proposals.

The proposal on SSM, which is substantially watered down compared with what exists on the table during the Doha negotiations over the past 14 years, was put up by these countries along with the G-33 farm coalition on late Thursday evening.

It says, “The developing country members shall have the right to have to recourse to a Special Safeguard Mechanism based on import quantity and price triggers" and “the negotiations on this subject shall be held in committee on agriculture in special sessions, in dedicated sessions and in an accelerated time-frame, distinct from the agriculture negotiations under the Doha Development Agenda".

Further, “members shall engage constructively to negotiate in order to ensure adoption of the special safeguard mechanism by the eleventh Ministerial Conference [2017]", the draft decision argued.

On the draft ministerial decision for permanent solution on public stockholding programmes for food security, India, China, and Turkey suggested “the negotiations on a permanent solution on the issue of public stockholding for food security purposes shall continue to be pursued as a priority in the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session, in dedicated sessions and in an accelerated time-frame distinct from the agriculture negotiations under the DDA, so as to agree and adopt the permanent solution on Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes, by the Eleventh Ministerial Conference [2017]".

These two proposals by India, China and Turkey are not acceptable to the US because the DDA is mentioned in them, according to a South American trade minister who declined to be named.

The US trade representative Michael Froman and India’s commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman held a bilateral meeting but the details are not made public yet.

Sitharaman met the chair for the WTO’s tenth ministerial conference Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for foreign affairs, and the facilitator for the outcomes on agriculture Setipa.

Sitharaman also defended her positions at an meeting of the committee on agriculture special session chaired by Setipa late Thursday evening.

The US’ hardline positions on SSM are supported by Australia and Brazil, which insist there should be no mention of SSM in the proposed deliverables of the Nairobi ministerial declaration on the ground that there are no specific market access negotiations that are going to included in the final declaration that would be issued if everything goes well, said another trade negotiator familiar with the meetings.

China also raised strong objections to specific flexibilities provided to the US on export credits in which the proposed disciplines by Setipa take on board the existing American programmes. All the Doha ministerial decisions on export credits are re-written to accommodate the US’ concerns on export credits and food aid, said Timothy Wise, an academic at Tufts University in the US.

In his plenary intervention at the tenth ministerial conference on Thursday, Froman called for “pragmatism" and to “look, think and act beyond Doha". Froman called for freeing from the strictures of the Doha framework so to allow “new creative approaches to those issues, as well as allow us to explore emerging trade issues, revitalizing the WTO and the multilateral trading system".

In effect, Froman is setting the bar so high at the meeting for a complete rupture with the Doha negotiations, which is causing a backlash among many developing countries.

Sitharaman conveyed to the chair for the conference that there has to be a specific reference to Doha in the ministerial declaration for continuing with the negotiations on the outstanding issues after Nairobi. Apparently, Mohamed suggested that there would be a mention of differences on the continuation of Doha negotiations and that negotiations will be continued without touching on Doha.

The Indian minister did not accept the language proposed by the chair and insisted that reaffirmation is imperative for India, according to a Kenyan official who declined to be named.

Besides the continued differences on agriculture, trade ministers could not agree on a set of outcomes for improving the provisions on special and differential flexibilities, new disciplines on fisheries subsidies and transparency provisions for anti-dumping.

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