Fed Up

posted by
on October 12, 2014

Fed Up

(First of a two-part series)

 Sometimes in life, there comes a tipping point when — enough is enough. And that pretty much describes the present mood in the Geneva-based World Trade Organization. The Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans, Canadians, Scandinavians, Japanese — basically, all of the most important trading centers around the world that comprise the vast majority of world trade — have had it. They are fed up. Fed up with India, especially. India’s new prime minister, the pugnacious Narendra Modi, has brought all WTO negotiations to a halt, thanks to his unprecedented recent veto of the only successful multilateral trade-liberalizing negotiation in the institution’s nearly twenty years of existence.  “Disgusted” even more, as one diplomat based in a European country un-delicately puts it, because Modi’s reasons simply defy economic logic.

Leading WTO members have also had it with various African and Latin American leaders like those in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The leaders of such countries have gradually eroded their credibility by making no secret of the fact they just don’t really believe in the WTO’s core mission of dismantling trade barriers on a multilateral basis. Fed up with how the economic laggards have meanwhile been holding the rest of the WTO’s 160-member countries hostage to their parochial demands.

Over the years, the WTO and its predecessor international trade rules-making organization have operated on two core beliefs. First, that trade liberalization must be done for the good of all members, on a multilateral basis. Second, that the negotiations to dismantle trade barriers will be reached by consensus — but with the expectation that member countries will conduct themselves with a certain civility, and restraint. The institution cannot function when those core beliefs are trampled upon.

True, some WTO members like Switzerland, Norway and Japan who are presently outraged at India have their own protectionist rackets that they defend vigorously in negotiations (think only of Japan’s 500-plus percent rice tariffs). But, in significant contrast with India, such respected WTO member countries always conduct themselves with civility and restraint. It is unthinkable that they would wreck the institution for domestic political gain.

The frustrations with India and the other chronic economic under-achievers who have anti-colonial chips on their shoulders hardly stop at the traditional “North-South” divide between the rich countries and their former colonial possessions. Privately, some key officials from countries that have traditionally identified themselves with the WTO member countries from the “South” — including Mexico, Brazil, Pakistan, and even some in Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Benin — share the frustrations. True, some of these same countries can’t seem to make up their minds which side they are on — Kenya comes immediately to mind, as do Tanzania and Uganda. Africans have often joined in the constant attacks against the WTO since it succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1995. But now, there seems to be an emerging fear in Africa that things have gotten out of hand, and that vulnerable African economies will suffer the consequences of India’s irresponsibility.

And there are the more economically enlightened smaller countries in the “South” — like Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, and Chile — that have been prospering because they have wisely embraced the global trading system. These admirable symbols of what trade liberalization can accomplish have been leading by their examples. And they are growing weary of the continuing shrill attacks against the system brought by WTO members who just don’t get it.

In short, there is a growing belief in leading WTO circles that if the institution is going to survive, it can no longer continue to do business as usual. Leading trade diplomats in Geneva and other key capitals have concluded that WTO’s future ability to liberalize trade cannot be based on the traditional consensus-based multilateral approach, where any single member can enjoy veto power. Instead, the WTO’s future negotiations will focus on a so-called plurilateral approach, where smaller groups of like-minded countries that genuinely want to liberalize trade will do so. If the laggards don’t participate, fine. From now on, well-placed diplomatic insiders vow, no longer will weak countries which aren’t really important international trade players anyway, be allowed to poison progress for everyone else. India, for example has about a 1.9 percent share of global trade flows, but Indian leaders seem to think they deserve 90 percent of the attention.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy once famously said, “trade, or die.” Now, for the World Trade Organization, the new mantra is becoming “change, or die.”

Such are the impressions gleaned from nearly two-dozen confidential interviews conducted over the course of several months with key players in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This two-part series offers details and analysis aimed at explaining in in clear language what many thoughtful trade diplomats would like to say publicly, if they were not constrained by the requirements of diplomacy.


An Institution Under Constant Attack

With apologies for the use of the personal pronoun, I have been covering the WTO and its predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — the GATT — for more than three decades. Launched in 1947 by the United States and 22 other countries, the GATT became the world’s most successful international economic experiment. Seven successive multilateral trade-liberalizing rounds contributed to expanding global prosperity by slashing tariffs and dismantling trade barriers. The last of those negotiating successes, called the Uruguay Round, set up the WTO in 1995.

And that’s when multilateral trade liberalizing negotiations pretty much hit the wall. One could say the GATT morphed into the General Disagreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Remember the famous 1999 anti-trade riots in the streets of Seattle? Many Third World countries inside the WTO’s ministerial meetings quietly cheered the unruly protestors who trashed that beautiful city. There would be no Seattle Round. In 2001, the WTO did manage to launch the Doha Round (for trivia fans, named for the city in Qatar where that year’s ministerial meetings were held). But the Doha Round has been in deep trouble ever since.

In 2003 many African countries openly celebrated their success in killing that year’s WTO ministerial in Cancun. We came to make demands, not make concessions, the Africans boasted. Indian negotiators contributed to that failure, although to their credit, the Indian official delegation seemed crestfallen that they had gone too far. They had not meant to put the Doha negotiations in intensive care.

Then in 2008, a deal was close to being struck in Geneva that would have completed the Doha Round. Among other economic benefits, trade-distorting agriculture subsidies for both rich- and poor countries would be substantially reduced. Financial services would be allowed to flow more freely across international borders. And both rich- and poor countries would do more to open their markets to global competition. But that deal also collapsed in bitterness. While there is plenty of shared criticism for the 2008 failure, it was clearly India’s intransigent “non-negotiable” demands that did the most to poison the atmosphere. And this time the Indian negotiators, led by their abrasive trade minister, Kamal Nath, returned to New Delhi boasting of their triumph.

In those previous WTO trade spats, at least, everyone came away from the battlefield vowing, at least for public consumption, to do better the next time. Until this year, when some of the Africans and the Indians struck again. The bitter irony is that the present mood comes in the wake of the WTO’s most impressive negotiating success, where the rich- and poor countries (finally) worked together for the common good to give global trade flows a significant boost.

Meeting in Bali last December, the WTO’s then 159 member countries agreed to a so-called Trade Facilitation deal that promised, over time, a trillion-dollar economic payoff. Essentially, the wealthier WTO members have already been giving poorer countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help facilitate trade by fixing embarrassments that have long clogged Third World borders — corrupt customs offices and cumbersome red tape, inefficient ports, shoddy roads, and such. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to understand why difficult borders prevent the rising economic prosperity that stems from enhanced trade flows. The Bali deal promised much more assistance to speed the movement of goods and services across borders. The deal was a win-win for everyone: both for giant multinational corporations that move goods and services across borders, and for millions of citizens of poor countries whose living standards would stand to rise along with the resulting expanded trade opportunities.

The Bali Package was the first successful multilateral trade-liberalizing deal in the nearly two decades of WTO history. Finally, the institution had shown that it could deliver something meaningful on the multilateral negotiating table. The general belief was that the success in Bali would spur the revival of the Doha Round, which now has been floundering for thirteen years.

 But now those hopes have been dashed. On July 31, India’s Narendra Modi vetoed the schedule to implement the Bali deal.  Since then, all subsequent efforts to give Modi a face-saving way to back off have failed. There are some (slim) hopes that meetings in the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva scheduled later this week could put the deal back on track. But the sad truth is that the Bali deal has acquired a definite Humpty Dumpty look. The essential trust in the system — that countries will honor what they have agreed to instead of negotiating in bad faith — has been lost. It will not easily be regained. Whether it will be officially declared or not, the Doha Round is dead.

The WTO’s wealthy countries are even bitterer because they had had to work very hard, for years, just to persuade the poor countries to accept substantial financial sums to bind themselves to do things they should have long ago done themselves, in their own self-interests.

Adding to the bitterness, Modi’s demands simply made no good sense. He was fighting for policies that are clearly not in India’s best interests. “India’s economy is today the least integrated into global production chains among the world’s top-25 exporting economies,” Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Natalia Macyra, and Erik Van Der Marel of the highly respected European Centre for International Political Economy in a recent paper: India & the WTO. “India is failing in sectors it chooses to protect, and is only competitive in sectors where it chose to liberalise, for example its IT services sector and the outsourcing business.”

Nor are the specific agriculture policies that Modi has fought for in the interests of other WTO countries that import Indian rice and other grains. In recent years, and up to the present, India’s domestic farm policies have inflicted economic damage in other poor countries. India’s grain exports have distorted food prices not only in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh, and on to Haiti and some African countries as well.[Coming tomorrow, the conclusion: “Hot (Headed) Yoga”]



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.