The Consequences of Indian Obstructionism

Narendra Modi portrays himself as a pro-growth reformer, but he is behaving like an economic nationalist.


Aug. 3, 2014 1:00 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal Asia
India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Thursday vetoed the implementation of a trade agreement that promised a trillion-dollar boost to the global economy. The deal, inked last December at World Trade Organization meetings in Bali, was the WTO’s first successful multilateral trade negotiation in 20 years.

Mr. Modi wants to extract permission to tear up existing WTO rules that limit government food subsidies and stockpiling. His extortion bid runs counter to the purpose of all WTO negotiations, which is to liberalize trade, not further entrench protectionist rackets.

Moreover, the previous Indian government had agreed to the Bali deal. The “core issue,” as U.S. Ambassador to the WTO Michael Punke reminded his colleagues in Geneva last week, is this: “Will members of the WTO keep their commitments?” Lamented an obviously saddened WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo of India’s handiwork: “This will have consequences.”

One consequence is that India’s reputation as a trustworthy negotiating partner will be further tarnished. The limits on agricultural protectionism that Mr. Modi wants to break date to another WTO trade commitment that India signed 20 years ago. Essentially, the Indian government pays its farmers above-market prices for their crops, which are then stockpiled and doled out in India’s notorious city slums (particularly when elections loom). Much of the grain rots or is stolen.

The Bali deal already gave the Indians a four-year “peace clause,” allowing New Delhi to increase temporarily the otherwise WTO-incompatible subsidies. The four years were to give India time to come up with a more economically defensible system. But the four-year exemption was not enough for Mr. Modi, who demands a permanent exemption to subsidize as much as he wants—and right now, thank you.

How many more rupees does India intend to dole out in the name of “food security”? Many diplomats in WTO headquarters in Geneva would like to know the answer to that question. The last time any Indian government honored its WTO obligations to report how much it spends on agriculture subsidies was 2011—and even then, no data was provided beyond the 2003 crop year.

Mr. Modi promises that his planned increased subsidies and mountains of stockpiled grain will not distort global markets by driving up costs of food around the world. But India’s record of keeping such promises is poor. New Delhi slapped export controls on rice in late 2007, ahead of 2008 elections. That contributed to skyrocketing rice prices in the global markets and riots in Haiti, Cameroon, Senegal and other countries. One of the first things Mr. Modi did after he came to power was to impose new price controls on onions and potatoes.

Mr. Modi’s dubious trade behavior goes beyond just agriculture. India has been a participant in the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement since 1997. As an ITA member, Delhi slashed its tariffs on imports of computers and telecommunications equipment. But in Mr. Modi’s first two months in office, he’s already advocated new trade restrictions and jacked-up tariffs on imports of iPhones.

The clever catch: such high-tech gadgets weren’t invented when India joined the ITA in the 1990s, and thus aren’t covered by that agreement. While Mr. Modi portrays himself as a savvy pro-growth leader from Gujarat, he is rapidly acquiring the look of a pugnacious economic nationalist.

The consequences of India’s blocking implementation of the WTO’s Bali pact will be far-reaching. Individual governments (Sweden and Norway are leaders) and international organizations such as the World Bank and the WTO’s International Trade Centre are spending more than $300 million annually on trade-facilitation projects around the developing world. But much more is needed, as a quick look at Africa illustrates.

It takes three or four days, at best, for ships to clear cargo in Mombasa, Kenya (as compared to just a few hours in Hong Kong and Singapore). To transit goods from Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda, takes another four days; and then another two days on to Rwanda’s Kigali.

That’s actually good news. It used to take 22 days to move cargo from Mombasa to Kigali, says Valentine Rugwabiza, a former high-ranking WTO official who is now CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. “Trade facilitation globally is extremely important,” emphasizes Ms. Rugwabiza.

The Bali deal would have institutionalized this effort and given poor countries the financial and technical wherewithal to modernize their clogged ports, fix their bad roads, and streamline their notoriously inefficient (and corrupt) customs bottlenecks.

India’s ploy has been criticized by dozens of WTO member countries including the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan, China, Vietnam, Nigeria, and evenVladimir Putin‘s Russia, which isn’t always known for principled stands on rule-of-law issues.

Unless and until Mr. Modi backs off, the credibility of the WTO as an institution capable of forging consensus of its 160 member countries to forge genuine multilateral deals that will expand global trade flows will continue to erode. Nations will increasingly turn to their own bilateral and regional trade arrangements—with New Delhi left behind.

Mr. Rushford is editor of the Rushford Report, an online journal that tracks the politics of trade and diplomacy.

India’s Bali Debacle

posted by
on August 4, 2014


India’s Bali Debacle

Delhi holds free trade hostage to score political points at home

Wall Street Journal Asia
Dec. 9, 2013 11:50 a.m. ET
Bali, Indonesia

After four days of intense round-the-clock negotiations, the 159 members of the World Trade Organization struck a deal last week that is expected to give the global economy a $1 trillion boost. But progress toward freer trade came at a price. Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma held up the deal to extract permission for Delhi to break current WTO rules that limit agricultural cash subsidies and food stockpiling.

The real surprise was how India’s backsliding provoked an angry reaction even among its fellow developing countries. By overplaying its hand, Delhi damaged its reputation as the champion of the world’s poor. That may have important consequences for future WTO negotiations.

First the unalloyed good news. The core of the deal, the Trade Facilitation Package in WTO parlance, aims at moving goods more efficiently across international borders, especially in the less-developed parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. It should help streamline inefficient customs procedures, improve some of the world’s worst roads and otherwise foster efficiencies in clogged ports of entry.

Mr. Sharma was willing to throw all of these benefits away to score political points at home. Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party, weakened by corruption scandals, is lagging in the polls ahead of next April’s general election. Mr. Sharma’s mission in Bali was to secure agricultural protectionism, a centerpiece of Congress’s appeal. The largesse is meant to be doled out to hundreds of millions of India’s poor voters–from subsistence farmers to urban slum residents.

At a contentious Dec. 5 press conference, Mr. Sharma told reporters that he had come to Bali not “to make a deal,” but “to secure the interests of the poor, as well as food security.” India was no longer a “beggar nation,” he insisted, and called all criticisms of his position wrong or misinformed.

That infuriated a journalist from Benin, one of the world’s poorest countries, who at the conference shouted to Mr. Sharma, “You don’t speak for us.” WTO members like Benin recognize they cannot afford to lavish subsidies on their poor farmers, Indian style. They did not want Bali to fail.

Nor did more than 100 influential WTO members and groups, including Hong Kong, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Chile, all of Asean, and most African and Latin American countries. On Nov. 29 these WTO leaders circulated a strong letter supporting Director-General Roberto Azevedo’s attempts to ensure a “successful outcome” in Bali. “We were sending a clear message about India’s likely obstructionism,” one Asian diplomat involved in drafting the letter explained.

India also lost the support of important players like China, Brazil, and even Russia. An upset Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leaked to the Jakarta Post that he planned to call Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hoping to persuade India to be more reasonable. Indeed, the leading Indonesian newspaper hammered India all week, rightly reporting that Delhi had been “widely blamed” for the hardball tactics leading to the negotiating impasse.

Mr. Sharma offended many peers and undermined his claims to be negotiating in good faith by asserting that his demands were “non-negotiable.” Diplomats privately called the Indian position “arrogant,” “condescending,” and “insulting.”

Said one Latin American trade negotiator, “The WTO is supposed to be about freeing trade, not negotiating increased protectionism.” Another senior Asian diplomat reminded me that India’s unfortunate record of stockpiling grains contributed in 2008 to skyrocketing rice prices that caused food riots from Haiti to the Ivory Coast and Indonesia. “You can’t trust these people,” he said of the Indian delegation.

At the end of the day, Mr. Sharma’s insistence that India needed a permanent exemption from existing WTO rules limiting agricultural subsidies was supported only by the usual suspects when it comes to backward-looking economics: Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, South Africa, and Bolivia. Not that Mr. Sharma had reason to care. He was really speaking to Congress Party constituencies back home.

Still, the threat to torpedo the entire negotiating package was considered credible enough that Mr. Sharma ended up getting most of what he had wanted. The “peace clause” in this deal allows India to continue its subsidies for four years, at which point the fight could start all over again.

The politics of trade are distorted in India by the country’s failure to take advantage of past openings. China and others have developed their manufacturing industries by exporting finished goods to North America and Europe. In the process they have created unskilled jobs for people moving off the land and into the cities.

In India, by contrast, excessive regulation, taxation and corruption prevent companies from building factories. So the rural poor continue to demand handouts and protection from agricultural imports.

Most other developing countries face a different political calculus. As their labor force moves into the cities, they are less concerned with protecting grain markets and more interested in using the WTO to open markets wider to their manufactured exports.

That created what some are now calling a “South-South split.” While it’s not clear how this will affect the political landscape in future WTO negotiations, it was clearly evident in Bali. The backlash against the main obstructionist power in global trade talks could mean that the tide is finally turning away from a “rich vs. poor” mentality that has stymied the WTO’s Doha Round for the last 12 years.

Mr. Rushford publishes the Rushford Report, an online journal based in Washington, D.C. that specializes in the politics of international trade and development.


Elephant in the Room

posted by
on August 4, 2014


Elephant In the Room


GREG RUSHFORD The Wall Street Journal Asia
Updated Dec. 14, 2007 12:01 a.m. ET
At the World Trade Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, there’s a growing sense that a global trade deal is finally possible. The negotiations are now mostly characterized as serious. Big players, notably including the United States and the European Union, want to move forward. But that still doesn’t mean a deal is necessarily probable. This six-year, on-again-off-again process is now being threatened by a country that can least afford the collapse of the Doha Round: India.

Last week, the Indians were back to the rhetoric that has marked their negotiating style throughout the Doha process. The latest spat was over a newly circulated draft negotiating text on “rules,” including possible reforms of protectionist antidumping laws. The measure is controversial, and even the Americans have voiced concerns on some issues. But whereas U.S. officials expressed willingness to negotiate, their Indian counterparts threatened to close the door. Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia, India’s top trade diplomat in Geneva, called the draft text effectively an insult. India has been committed to the Doha negotiations, the ambassador said, “but if, God forbid, a time comes when that price of engagement is unpayable by us, then we will have to stand up and say that.”

That’s a rich statement, given India’s negotiating tactics. Rather than express willingness to negotiate gradual, phased-in liberalizations — which is how the Doha process is supposed to work — Trade Minister Kamal Nath has a long list of sectors he has insisted are “non-negotiable” from the get-go, including a “negative list” of politically “sensitive” imports that are discouraged, if not actually prohibited, from fruits and vegetables to grains, edible oils, rubber, cotton and silk.

* * *

While the rich Europeans and Americans actually could afford to walk away from the Doha Round, India would pay a dear price for its failure. Consider the gains India has already reaped from earlier rounds of partial trade liberalization.

Over the past 16 years, India has already unilaterally cut many tariffs to the 10%-12% range from an average of more than 40%. The effects are palpable. In 1991, trade was only 17% of GDP; by 2005 it was 45% and rising. India has become a major player in information technology, which has shot up to nearly $24 billion in exports from $13 billion four years ago, and now accounts for about 30% of its exports. The earlier tariff cuts, by lessening the costs of imports for Indian manufacturers, have contributed to average annual GDP growth of 8.5% in recent years, and have pulled millions of Indians out of poverty.

Yet India’s industrial tariffs are still high enough to put Indian manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage by taxing essential imported raw materials, which is why Doha is such a critical next step. For instance, India’s two biggest exports are petrochemicals and jewelry. But 14% tariffs on machinery, 15% on chemicals and 20% on transport equipment drive up the costs for domestic firms that need the foreign inputs. Thanks in large part to the barriers that are built into its tariff schedule (combined with the domestic red tape and bottlenecks), India produces fewer than 1% of the world’s manufactured goods.

India’s history of liberalization also shows how tariff reductions and the ensuing exposure to international market forces can create useful pressure to implement domestic reforms. Following the earlier trade liberalization, India found itself with little choice but to ease some licensing requirements on imports of capital goods. The country has been looking to attract more foreign investment by beginning to dismantle barriers that have long held its heavily regulated banking, pharmaceutical and insurance sectors back.

This is no small consideration in India, where domestic regulatory and infrastructure bottlenecks are notorious. The World Bank’s latest Doing Business survey estimates that the cost, including tariffs, poor roads, others customs duties and bureaucratic red tape, for India to export a carton of goods to the U.S. is $820; for China, it’s $390. It costs India $910 to import a carton from America, compared to $430 for China. Overall, the survey ranks India 120 out of 178 for ease of doing business. China ranks 83.

Absent pro-trade legal structures — like Doha — there’s little concrete pressure to change. Even with Doha, bottlenecks at ports would throw up short- to medium-term roadblocks to economic development. In one sense it’s a catch-22. Under Doha, India would chafe under its infrastructure constraints. But without Doha, there’s no pressure to fix those problems.

Take the rag trade. Given its large, hard-working population, India should also be able to compete with China in textiles and apparel. It’s not. Last year, China sold clothing worth about $27 billion to the U.S., a 25% increase over 2004. India’s clothing exports to the U.S. were about $5 billion last year, an increase of less than 2%, and only about $2 billion more than Bangladesh’s clothing exports to the U.S.

India is clobbered by an economic double whammy. First, its domestic labor laws make it near-to-impossible to fire workers, even if there is no work for them to do. This discourages large companies from moving into the market, ensuring that the industry remains at the mom-and-pop stage. And in the Doha Round, India’s negotiators are fighting hard to keep its protectionist tariffs averaging 42% on imports of clothing, which would result in little incentive to change the labor laws. Chinese clothing manufacturers must be laughing.

* * *

Since the economic logic is so powerful, one would think that India’s trade negotiators would be eager to bargain away tariff walls that hurt the country’s competitiveness. Wrong. In the Doha talks, India wants to retain “policy space” — a code word for protectionism — to raise tariffs any time it might find it convenient to prop up this or that uncompetitive domestic industry, like Brazil has been doing. Somehow it doesn’t occur to the Indians that their models on tariffs, instead of Brazil, should be the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong, where tariffs are negligible and economic growth is rampant.

India, of course, is hardly the only major WTO player that is playing brinksmanship games as the Doha negotiations lurch toward an end. Mr. Nath is right to complain that the EU’s infamous farm subsidies, which inflict hardships on poor countries, shouldn’t have existed in the first place. He isn’t the only trade minister to lament rising protectionist sentiments in the U.S. And other developing countries in the Doha process — Brazil, to name the most notable — have been busy raising their own tariffs while ostensibly negotiating in Geneva to lower them.

Despite India’s overall intransigence, Mr. Nath declared in late October that “We are in the last mile” in reaching some sort of Doha consensus. Key to further progress will India’s recognition that it stands only to benefit from freer trade.

Walk that last mile, Mr. Nath.

Mr. Rushford is editor of The Rushford Report, an online journal that tracks trade politics and diplomacy.