OPINION

Elephant In the Room

By

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.

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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.

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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.