Postponed WTO meeting complicates USTR Tai's push for new dynamism at trade body – Reuters

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai addresses the Geneva Graduate Institute on the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the global economy and U.S. policy priorities ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) – U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has a vision for reforming the World Trade Organization: rekindling the dynamism that marked its creation in 1995, when countries were committed to hashing out grievances and seeking compromise as they shaped the global trading system.
But the postponement on Fridayof a four-day ministerial meeting next week in Geneva over travel restrictions and concerns about the spread of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant left it unclear how or where Tai will push that vision. The cancellation also clouds U.S. demands for a WTO intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and curbs to fishery subsidies.
The WTO's director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said she wanted negotiations to continue despite no in-person travel, while Geneva-based country delegations should be empowered to reach deals, especially on vaccines.
"This new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with," she said in a statement.
No matter the venue, Tai's main problem in reforming the WTO is getting past entrenched positions and competing national interests – including those of the United States – that have kept the organization from evolving over the past quarter of a century, trade experts say.
Tai recently told reporters that the WTO, which was established to regulate and facilitate international trade, cannot return to its status quo and needs new vision and energy to stay relevant in a rapidly changing global economy.
"My vision for WTO reform is that WTO members come to Geneva or wherever it is that they might convene and bring their honest selves," Tai said. Members should "be prepared to fight for the vision of the WTO that" they want.
The latest round of WTO ministerial-level talks was set to take place against the backdrop of a global trading system scarred by the coronavirus pandemic and the tumult of the trade wars launched by former U.S. President Donald Trump during his four years in office.
Trump, who was skeptical about free trade and multilateral agreements, had threatened to withdraw from the organization. The WTO's dispute settlement system was paralyzed two years ago by U.S. opposition to Appellate Body judge appointments, with Washington arguing that the body had overstepped its mandate.
Tai has repeatedly voiced the Biden administration's commitment to the WTO and has sought to engage with U.S. allies on reforms for the organization.
"She's saying all the right things. She's underscoring the importance of a well-functioning WTO," said Wendy Cutler, a former USTR negotiator and current director of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington. "The question is whether the U.S. is playing the leadership role to help broker these deals, as it has done in the past, and perhaps that's not as evident as it used to be."
Pressure from India, other developing countries and activist groups has been building for an IP waiver that would allow more widespread manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries, with some WTO members said to be threatening to block progress on other issues without a waiver.
Tai in May announced U.S. support for the waiver, and President Joe Biden repeated the call on Friday in response to news about the new variant discovered in South Africa read more Negotiations over the waiver had deadlocked amid opposition from Switzerland, Britain and some other European countries.
In the fishery subsidies negotiations, Tai is pushing a U.S. proposal to ban subsidies for fishing fleets that use forced labor, including an explicit recognition that it is a problem. The demand has drawn opposition from India and other developing nations.
Jamieson Greer, who was USTR chief of staff during the Trump administration, said he doesn't see Tai backing down from that demand given the Biden administration's focus on workers' rights, so his expectations are low.
"We're looking at the WTO ministerial that doesn't have many, if any, consensus documents or outcomes," said Greer, who is now a trade lawyer with King & Spalding in Washington. He added that these may be replaced by plurilateral statements, which would not necessarily be considered a failure.
"I think it probably will underscore that the WTO cannot solve a lot of these intractable problems."
Okonjo-Iweala told reporters on Thursday that she hopes the increased U.S. engagement spearheaded by Tai could bring parties together toward compromise, especially on COVID-19 and the fisheries issue.
Tai has yet to engage in major multilateral negotiations, but since taking office in March she has managed to score some bilateral trade victories, including deals with the European Union to end a 17-year aircraft subsidies dispute and ease U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs with duty-free quotas for European producers.
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