Tag Archives: WTO

WTO: Trade tensions pose greatest risk to trade growth

Alicia Nicholls

Rising trade tensions and economic uncertainty account largely for the deceleration in global trade growth experienced in 2018 and will continue to pose the greatest risk to growth in 2019. This is according to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in its latest Trade Statistics and Outlook released on April 2, 2019.

As I had noted in my first blog post for the year, 2018 was without doubt a challenging  year for global trade policy. Among the highlights (or low lights) were the tariff tit for tat between the US and China until a truce in December 2018 brought a halt to the planned imposition of more tariffs, and the imposition by the US of punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, which led to retaliation by other major powers, most notably, the EU.

It is little surprise then that according to WTO economists, global trade under-performed in 2018 expanding by 3.0%, down from the 4.6% above-average growth recorded in 2017 and slower than the 3.9% which was projected for 2018 in their September 2018 forecast. The uncertainty has led to a dampening of investment and consumption. Weak import demand in Europe and Asia depressed global trade volume growth in 2018. Higher energy prices were partly responsible for the 10% increase in the value of merchandise trade in 2018.

In his brief remarks during a press conference on the latest forecast, the WTO’s Director General, Mr. Roberto Azevedo, noted that “the fact that we don’t have great news today should surprise no one who has been reading the papers over the last 12 months. Of course there are other elements at play, but rising trade tensions are the major factor”.  The Director General further explained that the range of new and retaliatory measures tariffs introduced affected widely trade goods. Other factors which affected global trade growth in 2018 were the weaker global economic growth, volatility in financial markets and tighter monetary conditions in developed countries, among others.

World commercial services trade was much more positive with the value rising 8% in 2018 on the back of strong import growth in Asia.

Looking forward, WTO economists now forecast world merchandise trade growth to slow further to 2.6% in 2019, which is a downward revision from their forecast of 3.7% in September 2018. WTO economists estimate some pickup in trade growth to 3.0% in 2020, with stronger growth predicted for developing economies than developed ones.

They, however, caution that this forecast could be affected negatively if trade tensions continue to escalate, or positively if they ease. Director General Azevedo reiterated that “it is therefore increasingly urgent that we resolve tensions and focus on charting a positive path forward for global trade which responds to the real challenges in today’s economy”.

The full forecast may be viewed here, while Mr. Azevedo’s remarks are available here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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Can CARICOM Countries Afford to Miss the WTO E-commerce train?

Dr. Jan Yves Remy and Alicia Nicholls

On the sidelines of this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in January at Davos, Switzerland, 76 Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) expressed their intention to begin WTO negotiations on electronic commerce (e-commerce). Making up less than half of the WTO’s overall membership, these willing Members entreated other Members to join them in negotiating rules aimed at facilitating the use of e-commerce in trade.

All independent CARICOM Member States, with the exception of the Bahamas – which is presently acceding to the WTO – are WTO Members and therefore eligible to join these negotiations. However, so far none has done so. Given the potential of e-commerce for their development, should CARICOM Member States reconsider their cautionary stance?

Growing importance of e-commerce to global trade

E-commerce, also referred to as “digital trade”, has been defined as “the production, distribution, marketing, sale and delivery of goods and services through electronic and digital means”.  In its World Trade Report 2018, the WTO noted that digital technologies – such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things and 3-D printing – are reducing trade costs and revolutionizing the structure and patterns of global trade flows.[i]  The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated the global e-commerce market to be around US $22.1 trillion in 2015.[ii]

The WTO Report and numerous studies[iii] highlight the potential of e-commerce to catalyse economic transformation in developing countries by lowering trade costs, increasing market access opportunities for Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and individual entrepreneurs, improving logistics, and widening consumer choice. Challenges, however, continue to plague the use of these technologies, including inadequate supportive policies, technology diffusion and regulation.

While more modern regional trade agreements – like the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement and even the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement – include comprehensive digital trade chapters, the WTO, which was negotiated in 1995, still does not contain a multilateral agreement dealing holistically with e-commerce. Instead, separate disciplines affecting digital trade in goods and services can be found in the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, and more recently, the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

The multilateral route: The WTO Declaration and Work Programme on E-Commerce

Multilateral discussions on e-commerce involving all WTO Members were launched in 1998 through the adoption of a Declaration on Global Electronic Commerce, and a Work Programme to examine trade-related issues related to global electronic commerce.  The Work Programme has been continuously updated at most WTO Ministerial Conferences since 1998, the last one being the Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference in 2017.  Under that Work Programme, the WTO’s main committees have been reviewing progress on discussions, with general oversight provided by the WTO’s General Council.  Despite fits of activity, and some proposals by select countries, not much has yet been accomplished beyond a temporary moratorium on the application of customs duties on electronic transmissions and the formulation of a working definition of e-commerce.

Although the negotiation of a multilateral agreement or rules among all 164 WTO Members would be ideal, consensus among all Members has been difficult to achieve.  This is in large part due to developing countries’ objections to what they consider to be ambitious proposals being pushed by developed countries.  On the one hand, WTO developing countries, led by India and the African Group of countries, support completion of the more limited mandate under the 1998 Work Programme framework.[iv]  On the other hand, developed countries, such as the US[v] and the European Union, advocate moving beyond mere discussions to actual negotiations to formulate rules aimed at increasing e-commerce opportunities in the twenty-first century.  Where CARICOM stands is unclear as no CARICOM government has to date tabled a proposal on e-commerce at the WTO.

The plurilateral route: Joint Statements on Electronic Commerce at Buenos Aires and at Davos

Without an official WTO mandate to proceed with multilateral negotiations, some WTO Members have begun negotiations on a plurilateral basis, that is, without all WTO Members but among a subset of willing ones.  The plurilateral discussions began when 71 Members signed a Joint Statement on E-Commerce in Buenos Aires in 2017, and was extended at Davos in January this year, when five more countries, including China, agreed to join the plurilaterals.

In their Joint Statement at Davos, the 76 signatories agreed, inter alia, to achieve “a high standard outcome that builds on existing WTO agreements and frameworks with the participation of as many WTO members as possible”.[vi]  The willing countries also agreed to “recognize and [to] take into account the unique opportunities and challenges faced by members, including developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), as well as by micro, small and medium sized enterprises, in relation to electronic commerce”.

Should CARICOM countries participate in plurilateral negotiations?

As with the multilateral e-commerce negotiations, CARICOM countries’ have remained silent on whether they have an appetite for joining the plurilateral e-commerce negotiations.  A number of factors could account for their apparent hesitation.

Firstly, CARICOM countries may be concerned about their capacity to engage in negotiations on an area of trade which is still relatively new and evolving, and their subsequent ability to implement in a timely manner any obligations undertaken. To allay such fears, it might be worth considering the approach to special and differential treatment taken in the Trade Facilitation Agreement, another WTO plurilateral agreement, where implementation is tied to a country’s capacity and the degree of technical assistance provided.

Secondly, some CARICOM countries may fear that participation in these negotiations will restrict their policy space, particularly their ability to regulate online traffic and cross border data flows, and attendant issues like data privacy and cybersecurity.  They might also be wary of the revenue implications of agreeing to the proposed permanent moratorium on the imposition of customs duties on electronic transmissions.

A third possible red flag for CARICOM may be the reluctance of other developing countries in joining the negotiations. While China joined at the last minute, others like India and the African Group countries have adamantly declined, preferring to focus attention on the multilateral discussions.[vii] These countries argue that e-commerce is monopolised by multinational corporations and that gains from e-commerce will not be realized for developing countries if they are required to cede their regulatory and policy space.

Without a critical mass of developing countries involved in the negotiations, CARICOM countries’ ability to form coalitions with perceived “like-minded” countries may be circumscribed. That said, e-commerce is an area in which CARICOM countries have offensive interests given the predominance of services in their economies.  It may well be that new coalitions will have to be built on the basis of a new alignment of interests.

Issues for Consideration

Given the importance of digital technology in global commerce, missing the e-commerce train at the WTO may not be in CARICOM’s best development interests. But CARICOM countries would be ill-advised to pursue a strategy to negotiations that ignores the following considerations.

Firstly, a negotiating strategy must be predicated on a sound digital trade policy that is informed by: data analysis of current patterns, scope and scale of e-commerce in the region; a clear-sighted appreciation of how e-commerce can promote the region’s overall economic transformation; and solid regulatory frameworks and infrastructure. Some studies, including one commissioned by UNCTAD on e-commerce legislation in Caribbean countries[viii], already exist.

Secondly, both the digital trade policy and the subsequent negotiating strategy will require the input and feedback of key stakeholders, including the private sector and regulators which will be tasked with administering any rules, and consumer bodies. Canada, which is one of the Joint Statement signatories, has already launched stakeholder consultations.[ix]

Thirdly, CARICOM countries must be tactical.  They should consider reaching out to other similar-minded developing countries to join the ongoing plurilaterals negotiations, and increase the visibility of issues that are unique to smaller developing countries.

What Next?

As CARICOM ponders its next move, negotiations on the plurilateral front are ramping up.  There is no agreement yet among those engaged in the plurilateral as to the legal structure any eventual agreement will take, nor as to its scope.  But there is a willingness to move beyond the “exploratory” phase to actual negotiations.  In fact, the first meeting of the plurilateral e-commerce negotiations is slated to take place on March 6.

That means that there is still an opportunity for all WTO Members to participate in these negotiations, and thereby influence their shape. The 70 plus signatories include the world’s largest trading economies which account for 90% of global trade.[x]  As the rules negotiated will likely serve as the baseline for any future multilateral e-commerce deal, non-participation by developing countries would relegate them, once again, to the status of rule-takers. This is not an area in which CARICOM countries should leave their destinies in the hands of others.

Dr Jan Yves Remy is the Deputy Director of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill’s Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy & Services. Alicia Nicholls is an international trade and development consultant and a contributing author to the UWI SRC’s Trading Thoughts column. This article was also published in Barbados Today.

[i] https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/world_trade_report18_e_under_embargo.pdf

[ii] https://unctad.org/es/paginas/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=1281&Sitemap_x0020_Taxonomy=Information%20and%20Communication%20Technologies

[iii] See for example Commonwealth (2017)  https://books.thecommonwealth.org/e-commerce-and-digital-trade-paperback; WTO (2013) https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/booksp_e/ecom_brochure_e.pdf ; E. Humphrey et. al (2003) https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3710/1/The_reality_of_e-commerce_with_developing_countries.pdf.

[iv] See link for a synthesis of some of the positions: https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news16_e/good_17nov16_e.htm. For the Indian Government’s views see  https://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges-africa/news/african-group-submits-proposal-on-e-commerce-ahead-of-wto and also for the African Group’s position: https://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/bridges-africa/news/african-group-submits-proposal-on-e-commerce-ahead-of-wto

[v] See this link for a greater discussion on the diverging views of WTO members on the way forward: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-wto-digital/some-wto-members-to-push-for-e-commerce-rules-as-broader-deal-fails-idUSKBN1E72YV

[vi] The link to the text of the Joint Statement on E-commerce of January 25, 2019 text is available on this webpage: https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/dgra_25jan19_e.htm

[vii] See https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/india-keeps-off-75-member-wto-e-comm-agreement-talks/article26093230.ece and https://www.livemint.com/politics/news/india-south-africa-others-skip-wto-negotiations-on-e-commerce-at-davos-meet-1548435856765.html

[viii] https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2084

[ix] http://www.internationaltradecomplianceupdate.com/2019/01/28/canada-launches-consultations-on-future-wto-e-commerce-negotiations/

[x] https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/dgra_25jan19_e.htm

G20 Trade Restrictive Measures Increase Significantly, WTO reports

Alicia Nicholls

The world’s twenty most economically powerful countries, the Group of 20 (G20), imposed a record number of trade restrictive measures between mid-May to mid-October 2018. This is according to the World Trade Organisation’s just released Report on G-20 Trade Measures, which  revealed that G20 countries’ trade-restrictive measures, estimated at US$481 billion, covered six times more trade than in the previous reporting period and were the biggest since this measure was first calculated in 2012.

According to the WTO’s report which was released on November 22nd, G20 economies applied a total of 40 trade-restrictive measures during the review period (May 16 to October 15, 2018) or about eight such measures per month, on average. These measures included tariff increases, import bans and export duties. According to the WTO, “about 79% of the current import-restrictive coverage is associated with bilateral measures between U.S. and China”.

G20 countries also implemented a higher number of trade remedy investigations than they terminated, but the gap between initiations and terminations has narrowed. Initiations of anti-dumping investigations accounted for three-fourths of all initiations during the review period. The WTO noted that iron and steel and products of iron and steel, furniture, bedding, mattresses and electrical machinery and parts thereof were the main sectors affected by trade remedy initiations.

On the flip side, G20 countries applied a total of 33 trade-facilitative measures, or seven trade-facilitative measures per month. These included eliminating or reducing import tariffs and export duties. The trade coverage of import-facilitating measures was US$ 216 billion. One silver lining is the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement which liberalized an additional US$541 billion of trade and has been an important trade liberalization measure.

Another nugget of good news is that despite the current crisis facing the WTO’s Appellate Body, the report noted that WTO members’ use of the WTO’s dispute settlement system remained high, which shows that WTO members still value the dispute settlement system.

The report presents the first concrete evidence of trade restrictive measures implemented during the current period of escalating trade tensions among the world’s major trading powers, most notably the US and China. It also comes on the heels of the just released report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which warned that global economic growth had peaked on the back of the slowdown in global trade and investment flows and appealing to the global policymakers to increase cooperation on matters of trade and the multilateral trading system.

In his statement on the report, WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo warned that “the report’s findings should be of serious concern for G20 governments and the whole international community.” He further warned that “further escalation remains a real threat” and that “if we continue along the current course, the economic risks will increase, with potential effects for growth, jobs and consumer prices around the world.” As a result, he noted that while the WTO was doing all it could to support efforts to de-escalate the situation, he called on political will and leadership from the G20 to find solutions.

The full WTO Report on G20 Trade Measures (mid-May 2018 to mid-October 2018) may be accessed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

Why WTO Reform Matters for Caribbean Small States

Alicia Nicholls

At the conclusion of its 47th Meeting this week, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) released a statement in support of the multilateral trading system and its guardian, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which are currently under threat. All independent CARICOM member States, with the exception of the Bahamas which is currently in the process of accession, are WTO members and have a rich history of engagement in the WTO. WTO reform is more than a moot point for the Caribbean, but a question of economic and sustainable development importance for the region.

What is the Multilateral Trading System and the WTO?

The multilateral trading system was formed at the end of the Second World War with the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the progenitor to the WTO, in 1947. This rules-based system has provided for the predictable and peaceful conduct of global trade for more than a half century to the benefit of the global economy.

Since its inception in 1995, the WTO has been the guardian of the multilateral trading system. Its 164 members account for over 97% of global trade, with 22 other countries currently in the accession process. Despite its flaws, some of which I will come to shortly, the WTO has been an important building block in the global economic governance structure. Among its functions, the organisation serves not just as a permanent forum for negotiation of global trading rules among its members, but its dispute settlement system provides to WTO members an exclusive and compulsory system for the timely and orderly settlement of trade disputes.

Why the need for reform?

The core functions of the WTO have become increasingly under strain. Calls for reform are not new, but have intensified in recent years. Without doubt, the United States’ threat of withdrawal unless its own demands are met, has invigorated political will for reform of the WTO.

Firstly, the negotiation function of the WTO is in a paralytic state given the inability of member states to conclude the Doha Development Agenda – the latest round of trade negotiations which were launched at the Doha Ministerial in 2001 and whose only major agreement so far is the Trade Facilitation Agreement. The paralysis has been due largely to current decision-making procedures and the increased number of members which has made multilateral rule-making on ever more complex trade issues difficult. Secondly, the US has been blocking the appointment of judges to the WTO’s Appellate Body, which means there are currently only three judges, the minimum needed to hear a dispute. The once vaunted system will grind to a halt by December 2019 when two other judges’ terms are up for renewal. Thirdly, there are concerns with the lack of compliance by some States with notification and transparency requirements which impacts on the WTO’s monitoring function.

In response, many countries have not just pivoted their attention away from the multilateral table towards the regional arena, but there is growing protectionism and resort to unilateral measures. In its latest economic outlook released November 21st , the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned that global GDP growth has peaked on the back of a slowdown in global trade and investment flows owing to current trade tensions. The OECD has, therefore, called for renewed international cooperation and dialogue to tackle global trade issues and reform of the global trading system. Similar warnings have been made by other multilateral institutions and bring into sharp focus the importance of the stability of the multilateral trading system for the global economy in general, and for Caribbean small states, in particular, whose small open economies are susceptible to global economic shocks.

These systemic risks suggest that the WTO requires more than superficial tinkering, but comprehensive, inclusive and transparent reform. The challenge is making the WTO, an institution born in a different era and different economic landscape, “fit for purpose” for twenty-first century global trading realities, and in a way that caters to the unique needs of its smallest and most vulnerable members.

Why does WTO reform matter to Caribbean small States?

Caribbean small states, and small States in general, comprise only a tiny fraction of world trade, but their equitable integration into the global economy is essential for their economic survival. These States comprise primarily small island States, but also some small continental States. Compromised by limited bargaining power and inherent economic and other vulnerabilities, they depend on the certainty and predictability of the rules-based multilateral trading system not just to ensure that their traders face fair trading conditions in external markets, but that they could hold (at least in theory) larger states to account through the WTO’s dispute settlement body when they do not play by the rules.

It is of importance to Caribbean small States that updated trade rules for the twenty-first century not be made in negotiation theatres to which they are often not party (such as in Regional Trade Agreements and Mega-Regional Trade Agreements), but in the multilateral system where they have an equal seat at the table.

What proposals are on the table?

Thankfully, the silver lining to this story is that most WTO members have thus far expressed continued support for the multilateral trading system and have exhibited interest in WTO reform. The EU and Canada have both publicly shared their initial reform proposals and Canada held a meeting with thirteen other ‘like-minded’ governments in Ottawa to discuss WTO reform. The proposals have touched, for example, on decision and rule-making, improving the dispute settlement function and improving transparency and notification requirements.

In November 2018, the US, EU, Japan, Argentina and Costa Rica laid a proposal for tightening transparency and notification requirements under the WTO agreements. Among the recommendations were changes to the current Trade Policy Review mechanism, special consideration for developing countries and penalties for non-compliance by members.

Many of the proposals currently on the table have direct implications for Caribbean small States. For example, the EU and Canadian proposals evince growing appetite by the more advanced economies to change the current model of decision-making, that is, the consensus-based approach which requires absence of any formal objection to the decision. This approach has made the WTO one of the most democratic of the multilateral economic institutions. It allows small States to have bargaining power they otherwise would not have had and by mere numbers has led to a shift in the balance of bargaining power in favour of developing countries in the WTO. Though this approach has accounted for some of the stalemate, the wholesale move to a less democratic form of decision making would be disadvantageous to small States beset by limited negotiation might.

There are also calls for reforming the application of special and differential treatment (SDT) since currently any WTO member can self-designate as a developing country, entitling it to the flexibilities under the Agreements. This concern is due to the inclusion of large emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil in particular as developing countries. While not specifically supporting the creation of special categories, the EU concept paper notes the lack of nuance in the concept of a ‘developing country’. This is a good reason why small States should redouble their advocacy efforts for the translation of the Small Vulnerable Economy (SVE) informal group into a formal sub-category of developing countries.

What should we do?

The current crisis in the multilateral trading system has implications for Caribbean small states which rely on the certainty of the multilateral trading system and on the health of the global economy. It, however, also opens the door for our States to advocate for reforms as well. CARICOM countries have always played an active role in WTO negotiations, including pushing for the SVE grouping. For this reason, the COTED statement supporting the multilateral trading system and the WTO, and demanding a space for small States in the negotiations, was a good initial step.

The next step should entail formulating our own carefully considered responses to the proposals already on the table and advancing our own concrete proposals where we deem necessary. For instance, as noted before, given the dissatisfaction by advanced economies with the current carte blanche approach to SDT, this may be the opportune time to raise the reconsideration of making the SVE category a formal category. Additionally, as the on-going US-Antigua Gambling dispute shows, even though a small State may win a dispute, obtaining compliance is another matter. For this reason, dispute settlement reform is another area on which Caribbean small States should take particular interest.

Indeed, CARICOM governments will not have to depend solely on the vast knowledge and experience of their technocrats, but there are an increasing number of regional scholars and academic institutions, such as the University of the West Indies’ Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy & Services, which are pro-actively considering these issues, and whose technical expertise and research capacity could be drawn upon. There is also no need to reinvent the wheel given the growing corpus of literature, developed by the Commonwealth Secretariat for example, which has analysed the drawbacks of the WTO for small States and making proposals for reform. This work can be drawn upon in the formulation of our own proposals.

The Caribbean has a strong history of multilateral engagement within the WTO. The current situation gives us an appropriate moment to contribute to the comprehensive reform of the guardian of the multilateral trading system to ensure it remains fit for purpose for 21st century trading realities and for the global economy, and that it better serves its smallest and most vulnerable members. Caribbean small States can ill-afford to be perceived as backseat participants, but must be fully engaged and mobilized in this critical moment.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

If you take away multilateralism, who will hear us?

Alicia Nicholls

The title of this week’s article is borrowed from the impromptu but impassioned appeal made by Prime Minister of Barbados, the Hon. Mia Amor Mottley, QC, MP, in her maiden address on September 28th during the General Debate of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). With only one notable exception, support for multilateralism was a common thread linking the speeches given by world leaders during the General Debate.

Perhaps the most compelling case for multilateralism was that made by Foreign Minister of Singapore, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan. While warning that multilateralism was at a crossroads and was facing a crisis of confidence, Foreign Minister Balakrishnan made an articulate case for the indispensability of multilateralism to the global community, especially to small states.

Indeed, multilateralism affords small states a microphone that they would otherwise lack on the international stage. Despite the successes of the rules-based multilateral system, there are widening cracks in the system. These require immediate remedial action to enhance the system’s structural integrity to withstand the threat of creeping unilateralism, and to more effectively serve the needs of the global community in a changing geopolitical and economic world.

What is multilateralism?

Multilateralism, in the most rudimentary sense, refers to cooperation among three or more nation states to achieve a common goal. In contrast to the current isolationist US government stance, previous US governments were central to the establishment of the present-day multilateral system, which bears their footprint.

The modern day multilateral system was fashioned in the wake of the Second World War (1939-1945) with the aim of promoting global peace and stability. It was based on the liberal theory of international relations which posited, inter alia, that states which cooperate would not resort to war. It was in that immediate post-war era that the United Nations, the progeny of the League of Nations (1920-1946), was formed in 1945. The Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), the watchdogs of the global economic order, were established at a conference held in Brettons Woods, New Hampshire, US in 1944.

Multilateralism recognizes that no one Government alone can handle the growing plethora of challenges confronting the global community, and that by pooling resources, wisdom and ideas through shared institutions, optimum solutions could be found. In the years that followed, a spaghetti bowl of multilateral organisations has flourished in areas as diverse as health, telecommunications, the environment, migration, international transportation, labour, among others.

With respect to trade governance, an attempt was made by a US-led group of countries to establish an International Trade Organisation (ITO) in the mid 1940s but failed after the US Congress repeatedly declined to approve the ITO Charter. As such, an informal organization known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) governed world trade from 1945 until January 1995 when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came into being.

Why Multilateralism Matters to Small States

The majority of today’s developing countries were still colonies when many of these multilateral institutions were birthed. However, upon attaining independence, acceding to these institutions was viewed as a requisite rite of passage. This is particularly true for the world’s small states which have overwhelmingly been supporters of multilateralism.

But why is that? Small states, with their diminutive economies and populations, weak political leverage and inherent vulnerabilities, would be the “bullied kids” in an anarchic global system where “might is right”. The rules-based multilateral system provides a buffer of stability and predictability for small states. Its norms-based system, undergirded by international law, helps to constrain and contain great power aggression. In a general sense, multilateral institutions provide some semblance of accountability for those States which contravene global norms. I say in a general sense as history has proven that this has not always been the case with big countries. In the area of trade, the WTO’s dispute settlement system gives small states the opportunity, at least in theory, to hold hegemons to account.

Multilateral engagement gives small states, which would otherwise be Liliputians in the international system, a voice. Whereas by itself a small states’ voice is a little more than a squeak, by building coalitions small states have managed to achieve a roar on some issues. One of the most notable cases was the success of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in the UNFCCC negotiations leading up to the signature of the Paris Climate Agreement during the COP21 in 2015. Though not perfect, that agreement is an important milestone in the fight against anthropogenic global warming.

Small states have also been able to benefit from capacity building and technical assistance from multilateral institutions. An example is the research done by multilateral financial institutions on the issue of de-risking which has led to the loss of correspondent banking relations, with implications for these states’ financial sectors and commercial relations. In the wake of the financial crisis, several Caribbean countries, and most recently Barbados, have had to enter IMF structural adjustment programmes.

Some small states have also played a key role in the establishment of multilateral institutions. Trinidad & Tobago was instrumental in pushing for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and small states helped to push for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Moreover, small states have had some success in attaining high positions in international organisations.

Why is Multilateralism Under Threat?

Why is a system which has given the world relative peace and prosperity for some seventy years now facing what Singapore Foreign Minister Balakrishnan called a “crisis of confidence”? Questions about the efficacy and legitimacy of multilateral institutions have long been raised, but rising populism and anti-globalisation sentiment, in the wake of uneven recovery from the financial crisis has led to rising nationalism, xenophobia and unilateralism. Indeed, the recently published UNCTAD Trade and Development Report 2018 noted that trade tensions were a “symptom of a greater problem”, that is, failure to address rising global inequality and imbalances caused by “hyper-globalisation”.

But many of the problems are not the fault of multilateralism but due to inappropriate policy responses by Governments and by disruptive technologies which have replaced labour with machines. As such, as noted by Foreign Minister Balakrishnan in his UNGA speech, it is up to governments to address this through retooling workers and reformulating their education systems to equip the next generation with the tools to exploit these technologies.

Small states in their successive UNGA addresses have often expressed frustration at the slow pace of action on some fronts of concern to them, including financing for climate change. Antigua & Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, voiced disappointment with his country’s inability to receive compensation from the US after the WTO dispute settlement body ruled in Antigua & Barbuda’s favour in the US Gambling dispute. Moreover, Caribbean leaders have frequently bemoaned the lack of support for discontinuing the use of GDP per capita as a basis against which to measure development status. This criterion has excluded middle and high income Caribbean countries from most concessional loans and official development assistance.

Making Multilateralism Work Better

The question is not whether multilateralism works, but how can it work better. There are legitimate concerns about whether today’s multilateral institutions, many of which were forged during different economic and geopolitical times, remain “fit for purpose” for today’s global realities and challenges. Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan recognised this when he asserted in 2002 that “the United Nations exists not as a static memorial to the aspirations of an earlier age but as a work in progress – imperfect as all human endeavours must be capable of adaptation and improvement.”

On the trade front, for example, there have been increased calls for reform of the WTO. Several members, including the US, Canada and the EU, have made proposals for reform. As it stands, the WTO’s negotiation function remains in a state of paralysis, while the US blocking of the appointment of judges to its Appellate Body over the US government’s dissatisfaction with the dispute settlement system risks creating a crisis in that body’s ability to be an arbiter of trade disputes between WTO members. The renewed appetite for WTO reform provides a window of opportunity for small states to redouble their advocacy efforts for their own reform proposals, while making sure they are not excluded from having a seat at the table.

There is the need to address democratic and transparency deficits within multilateral institutions. The configuration and operation of the UN Security Council, for example, stills reflects a geopolitical reality that no longer exists. Decisions made by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where developing states do not have a seat at the table, have had devastating consequences for the offshore financial services sectors of Caribbean states.

Institutional reform would require, where feasible, strengthening the secretariats of these organisations to better serve the needs of member states, especially the most vulnerable. In addition to fostering a greater space for civil society to be heard in multilateral organizations, there should also be greater emphasis on building the capacity of small states to effectively participate in meetings and the day-to-day operations of these organisations.

The challenges which face the world call for more multilateralism, not less. Multilateralism is important for achieving Agenda 2030, including the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Multilateral institutions also have a pertinent role to play in developing rules to address emerging global issues. Singapore Foreign Minister Balakrishnan, for example, called for the UN to develop norms and rules for cybersecurity.

In the past week alone, several events have further reiterated why multilateralism is needed now more than ever. One of which is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC which showed that the world was already experiencing the effects of warming of 1.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The devastation caused by Hurricane Michael to the Florida Panhandle in the US this week reiterates the urgency of the need for redoubled climate action. Rising global trade tensions, protectionism and unilateralism have made trade top of mind for global economic leaders. In their communique released following the Annual Meetings of the Boards of the IMF and World Bank, it was specifically noted that the IMF would facilitate multilateral solutions for global challenges.

Carrying on the multilateralism baton

Prime Minister Mottley concluded her UNGA speech by asking “Will we carry and hand over to future generations, the baton left us by those who dreamed of a world of united nations or will we drop it?” For small states, it is important that we do not allow this baton to be dropped.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

The Sino-American Challenge to Multilateralism

Rasheed J. Griffith, Guest Contributor

Nations don’t trade. Metaphors can both clarify and deceive. Trade is no exception. The current commentary on trade relationships between nations has elevated the commercial profit-loss mechanisms of international trade to an abstract state level apparatus. When we say states trade what we really mean is the firms in different states have commercial relationships. Firms have a singular motive: to make profit. Similarly to making the individual-firm distinction, we must always remember to make the state-firm distinction. This distinction is further amplified when we are discussing large economy states. They too have a singular motive: geopolitical dominance.

The persistent US trade deficit with China implies that US consumers are able to buy cheaper goods from China. But it is also a signal of the erosion of the US global geopolitical dominance caused by economic decline. In the US economy financial goods are replacing physical goods. The chart below shows the increase in the financial component of US GDP relative to manufacturing.

Americasfireeconomy

Stock market capitalization of the US relative to GDP is 153%. For China it is 65% and Germany 54%. I am familiar with arguments that claim this is not problematic because countries trust the US markets most.

The 2008 financial crisis gave a glimpse of what could happen to the US economy if the financial sector collapsed.

The US government was barely able to patch up the financial markets by using excessive money creation and debt redistribution (i.e quantitative easing) in 2008. This was a necessary move but it means the Federal Reserve System balance sheet is now bloated. In another crisis, quantitative easing will likely not be effective. At that point, the money and capital markets of the US will no longer be as attractive in the long term, resulting in the dollar losing its global reserve currency status. At this point, the geopolitical dominance of US will weaken. And the main adversary (which is now China) will strive to make sure the US remains in a weakened position.

Very few people seem to understand this. But the Communist Party of China (CCP) understands. In 1999, two colonels of the People’s Liberation Army published Unrestricted Warfare[1]. The book gave strategies for defeating the USA without direct conventional military engagement. One of the core strategies was the use economic policies to eat away at the US economy. Having China being the core manufacturing hub of the world was one such strategy. This was made explicit with the ‘Made in China 2025’ policy recently launched by the CCP[2].

China did not achieve its spectacular growth through free trade. All of China’s trade is managed by the CCP. When discussing the USA-China trade relationship we must always acknowledge that China has an authoritarian government that will create and implement policies that they believe will benefit China irrespective of what the Chinese citizens think or what multilateral organizations demand. When China ascended to the WTO in 2001 it was naively expected that China would conform to the rules of that organization. Authoritarian governments, however, do not follow neoliberal rules.

Starting around 1978 under Deng Xiaoping, the CCP began their reforms from Soviet style system wide planning to state capitalism directed by large and powerful state owned enterprises (SOEs)[3]. Although China ascended to the WTO in 2001, this model never changed. On the Fortune 500 list of largest global companies, China comes in a close second (120) behind the US (126). Japan (52) is quite far behind. But what is shocking is that 93% of the Chinese firms on the list are SOEs. The CCP heavily subsidies their SOEs, and creates rules specifically favorable to them; to the detriment of foreign entities.

The USTR Section 301 report identified several instances where China has violated the WTO rules to which it signed in 2001. These concern trading rights, import regulations, export regulations, intellectual property rights, technology transfer, foreign investment, and so on[4]. The US has complained to the WTO about China on 22 occasions and China has still persisted in violating the rules. The White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing report goes on the dissect the persistent economic aggressions of China[5].

What choice does the US have if it is not able to deal with China through WTO processes? Multilateral processes only work if everyone agrees to adhere to the same rules. Of course , though, these rules were largely set by the US. In dealing with China, the WTO is absolutely ineffective. There is no democratic fallout if China refuses to acknowledge multilateral rules (as seen explicitly in China’s absolute refusal to acknowledge the Philippine’s win in the Hague in matter of the West Philippines Sea/South China Sea). It is likely that any strong ruling in the WTO against China will similarly fall on deaf ears. (Similarly the US has substantially disregarded a WTO ruling after losing a case to Antigua).

In any case, it has gotten to a point where countries cannot simply halt or significantly decrease trade with China in the form of sanctions. The US, then, is forced to use geoeconomics – the use of economic instruments to further geopolitical goals.

As the President of the United States, Trump is right to engage China directly. His strategy is clever: robe a geostrategic containment engagement in bland terms of trade rhetoric. And this is by no means outside the modus operandi of the US. During the Cold War period the US actively practised a strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. In fact, China has accused the US of trying to economically contain China[6]. But of course, China has been engaging in geoeconomics as well recently.

For example, in 2012 China allowed farmers from the Phillipines to export their bananas to China but when the bananas arrived they were left to rot on the dock. This left the Philippines banana planters with neither stock nor payment (30% of Philippines banana exports go to China). This was used as a tactic to weaken the Philippines position when the tensions over the South China Sea were rising[7]. Another example is when China blocked rare earth metals to Japan almost crippling Japanese tech manufacturing, until Japan finally conceded, over another maritime dispute[8]. In both cases, the WTO was impotent.

What Trump gets wrong is that tariffs are not sufficient. And he failed to properly define a long term strategy to deal with China. Without such a strategy the US will continue ad hoc aggressions.

China has been shown to disregard all multilateral rules if it wants to. But even so, it is difficult being upset with China. China has succeeded in the most comprehensive and rapid poverty alleviation program in all of human history. China was able to lift over 600 million people out of poverty in less than 30 years[9]. Following along this path, it should be expected that the CCP is mounting a restoration of China to compensate for its decline after the late 1850s: the “century of humiliation[10]”. Few commentators remember that for 18 of the last 20 centuries China commanded a greater share of world GDP that any other country. Henry Kissinger reminds us that as recent as 1820 China “produced over 30% of world GDP – an amount exceeding the GDP of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States combines.”[11]

Wang Yi, however, recently attempted to assure the UN that China has no ambition of hegemonic dominance[12]. I believe that is an empty statement given Xi Jinping’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has been added to the Party constitution of the CCP[13]. From the perspective of CCP, as Lee Kuan Yew frames it, China is not looking to become dominant; rather, it is looking to restore dominance. It is a different geopolitical mindset.

This to me is the crux of the Sino-American challenge. The US is right that China is not properly following WTO rules because it has disregarded many of those rules to accelerate its economic growth. And it has been exceedingly effective. But if China were to conform to the WTO rules, it would not match the model that has been so successful.

Multilateral trade rules were not designed by China to fit China’s model (authoritarian government, state capitalism). They were primarily designed by liberal democracies – the US in particular. Both of these nations have fundamentally different economic models and justifiable geopolitical reasons for disregarding WTO rules to protect (or increase) their geopolitical dominance.

We are living in a time of multilateralism. But this time is anomalous. Dani Rodrik has explained in detail why “free trade agreements” have little to do with free trade[14]. Those agreements are primarily political documents. In fact, “76 percent of existing preferential trade agreements covered at least some aspect of investment (such as free capital mobility) by 2011; 61 percent covered intellectual property rights protection; and 46 percent covered environmental regulations”[15]. These are political documents that attempt to alter a nation’s domestic policies with the preferences of international actors.

This is not possible with a powerful authoritarian government. It is a grave error to treat China as just another Western country; like how you would treat Japan. China is an ideological adversary to the US that has now become an economic adversary. When at odds with geopolitical motives multilateralism always fails. Geoeconomic escalation is not only justified but it is inevitable.

Rasheed Griffith’s professional interests include Southeast Asian Monetary Policy and AML Compliance. He may be contacted at rasheed.j.griffith AT gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @RasheedGriffith

[1] http://www.c4i.org/unrestricted.pdf

[2] https://supchina.com/2018/06/28/made-in-china-2025/

[3] https://orca.cf.ac.uk/99467/1/Publication_2016_IJEMSc.pdf

[4] https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Section%20301%20FINAL.PDF

[5] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/FINAL-China-Technology-Report-6.18.18-PDF.pdf

[6] http://www.atimes.com/article/us-tariffs-are-containment-beijings-message-fed-by-the-white-house/

[7] https://www.asiasentinel.com/society/the-china-philippine-banana-war/

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/business/global/23rare.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_China#Poverty_reduction

[10] https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/10/how-humiliation-drove-modern-chinese-history/280878/

[11] https://www.amazon.com/China-Henry-Kissinger/dp/0143121316

[12] http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201809/30/WS5bafb647a310eff303280520.html

[13] https://idsa.in/idsacomments/what-the-inclusion-of-bri-in-the-chinese-constitution-implies_jpanda_071117

[14]https://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/what_do_trade_agreements_really_do.pdf

[15] Limão, Nuno. 2016. “Preferential Trade Agreements.” NBER Working Paper 22138, March

EU makes initial proposals for WTO modernization

Alicia Nicholls

The European Commission has released a concept paper outlining its initial proposals for making the WTO more relevant and adaptive to current global realities and for strengthening its effectiveness.

The paper originates from a mandate given by the European Council to the European Commission. It was published days after G20 trade and investment ministers called for urgent WTO reform and a month after United States’ President Donald Trump renewed his desire to withdraw the US from the WTO. It also comes against the backdrop of an escalation in unilateralism as Washington readies to impose a further $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods imports.

In the paper, the Commission reiterates the EU’s “staunch” support of the multilateral trading system, noting that the 164-member WTO was “indispensable in ensuring free and fair trade”. It warns, however, that the WTO is under threat. It notes that the organisation’s current marginalisation by some of its key members stem from its failure to “adapt sufficiently to the rapidly changing global economy”.

The 17-page concept paper offers proposals under three key areas and is in effect three papers in one. These areas are: rulemaking and development, regular work and transparency and dispute settlement.

The Commission recommends that the EU continue to the work on the issues under the existing Doha mandate, but also states there is urgent need to broaden the negotiating agenda, building on several initiatives launched at the Buenos Aires Ministerial held in December 2017. Lamenting the current inadequacy of the WTO’s Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM), the Commission calls for improved transparency and subsidy notifications, rules which better capture subsidies granted by state-owned enterprises and stricter rules for the most trade-distortive types of subsidies.

The Commission recommends updating current trade rules on services and investment, and further reduce existing market access barriers and discriminatory treatment of foreign investors. One issue of which the Commission was particularly critical was the need to tighten rules on forced technology transfer – practices by some States which force foreign investors to directly or indirectly share their technological innovations with the State or domestic investors. Indeed, intellectual property rights issues are a major sore point between US and China trade relations.

The Commission also sounds the alarm about the “grave danger” to the WTO’s dispute settlement system posed by the US’ blocking of Appellate Body judge appointments. By end of September, the Appellate Body would have only the minimum (just three judges on its roster) and by December 2019 will have less than the minimum required to hear an appeal as two more retire. As such, the Commission has made some initial proposals for amendments which would take into account many of the US’ concerns with the WTO dispute settlement system which had been outlined in the President’s Trade Policy Agenda for 2018. For example, the Commission has suggested amending the 90-days rule contained in Article 17.5 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding to provide for more transparency and consultation.

The Commission has made clear that the proposals were meant to be a basis for discussion with the EU Parliament, the Council and other WTO members, and did not prejudice the EU’s final positions on the matters.

The concept paper makes for an interesting read and may be viewed here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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