US Trade Chief Tai Defends Post-Trump WTO Vision Ahead of Geneva Talks | The powerful 790 KFGO


By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has a vision for reforming the World Trade Organization: rekindling the momentum that marked its inception in 1995, when countries pledged to debate grievances and seek compromises while shaping the world trading system.

Its problem is to overcome entrenched positions and competing national interests – including those of the United States – that have kept the organization from evolving over the past quarter century, according to business experts.

Tai recently told reporters that the WTO, which was created to regulate and facilitate international trade, cannot revert to its previous status quo and needs a new vision and new energy to stay relevant in a rapidly changing global economy.

“My vision for WTO reform is for WTO members to come to Geneva or wherever they can meet and present themselves honestly,” Tai said. Members should “be ready to fight for whatever WTO vision they want.

Tai brings that perspective to a four-day WTO ministerial meeting starting on Tuesday against the backdrop of a global trading system marked by the coronavirus pandemic and the tumult of trade wars launched by former US President Donald Trump during of his four years in power.

Trump, who was skeptical of free trade and multilateral agreements, had threatened to withdraw from the organization. The WTO dispute settlement system was crippled two years ago by US opposition to the appointment of Appellate Body judges, with Washington arguing that the body had overstepped its mandate.

Tai has repeatedly expressed the Biden administration’s commitment to the WTO and sought to engage with U.S. allies on the organization’s reforms.

“She says all the right things. It emphasizes the importance of a well-functioning WTO, ”said Wendy Cutler, former USTR negotiator and current director of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington. “The question is whether the United States is playing the leading role in helping to negotiate these deals, as it has done in the past, and it may not be as obvious as it used to be.”

EVASIVE CONSENSUS

Two issues are seen as high priorities for the first ministerial meeting under the leadership of new WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – a long-sought deal to reduce harmful fisheries subsidies and a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. (See Factbox https://www.reuters.com/markets/deals/what-could-wto- Ministerial-conference-achieve-2021-11-23)

India and other developing countries are pushing for them, as well as activist groups, with some WTO members threatening to block progress on other issues without a vaccine waiver.

Tai announced U.S. support for the waiver in May to allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines in developing countries, but negotiations on the issue have stalled in the face of opposition from Switzerland, the United States. Great Britain and some other European countries.

In the fisheries subsidy negotiations, Tai is pushing for a US proposal to ban subsidies to fishing fleets that use forced labor, including explicitly acknowledging that it is a problem. The request drew opposition from India and other developing countries.

Jamieson Greer, who was USTR chief of staff during the Trump administration, said he did not see Tai back down from the demand given the Biden administration’s focus on workers’ rights, his expectations are therefore weak.

“We are looking at the WTO ministerial conference which does not have many, if any, documents or consensus results,” said Greer, who is now a commercial lawyer at King and Spalding in Washington. He added that these could be replaced by plurilateral declarations, which would not necessarily be considered a failure.

“I think this will probably underline that the WTO cannot solve a lot of these intractable problems.”

Okonjo-Iweala told reporters on Thursday that she hoped Tai-led increased U.S. engagement could bring the parties together towards a compromise, especially on COVID-19 and the fisheries issue.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

Tai has yet to engage in major multilateral negotiations, but since taking office in March, she has managed to secure bilateral trade victories, including deals with the European Union to end a 17-year dispute over aircraft subsidies and easing US tariffs on steel and aluminum with duty-free quotas for European producers.

Cutler, who led numerous negotiations for the USTR until November 2015, including on a Pacific Rim trade deal that Trump later abandoned, said WTO ministerial meetings were working on negotiation sessions including results are not pre-established.

“My experience is that in negotiations like this, a lot is done last week when ministers are there,” she said. “I think it’s too early to write the WTO obituary. Anything can happen that week, and when ministers get together and face tough choices, that’s when compromises are sometimes made.

(Reporting by David Lawder; additional reporting by Emma Farge, Philip Blenkinsop and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Simao)

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