The APEC 2021 Ministerial meeting was held remotely on November 8-9 and resulted in a joint statement which included ambitions of APECs 21 members for the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial Conference which starts in Geneva at the end of November (November 30-December 3). New Zealand has chaired APEC in 2021. Because the APEC countries include members accounting for 38% of the world’s population, 62% of the world’s GDP and 48% of global trade in 2020 and includes both the United States and China among the 21 territories, what APEC members support for the upcoming WTO ministerial may offer a glimpse of what may be possible in Geneva in the coming weeks. The APEC Ministerial Meeting Joint Statement and a publication on APEC in Numbers can be found here. See 2021 APEC Ministerial Meeting Joint Statement, Wellington, New Zealand, 09 November 2021, https://www.apec.org/meeting-papers/annual-ministerial-meetings/2021/2021-apec-ministerial-meeting; APEC in Charts 2021, https://www.apec.org/docs/default-source/publications/2021/11/apec-in-charts-2021/221_psu_apec-in-charts-2021.pdf?sfvrsn=50537c36_2. APEC members include Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, China, Hong Kong (China), Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, United States, and Viet Nam.
While the Declaration contains coverage of a number of issues, it has a separate section on the World Trade Organization (pages 4-5, paras. 17-22). The six paragraphs from the Joint Statement are copied below.
“World Trade Organization
“17. APEC takes pride in its long history of active support for the rules-based multilateral trading system (MTS), with the WTO at its core. The MTS has been a catalyst for our region’s extraordinary growth and we will work together to improve it. We seek a responsive, relevant, and revitalised WTO. We must support the WTO and its membership to modernise trade rules for the twenty-first century. Together, we will engage constructively and cooperate to ensure the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) is a success and delivers concrete results.
“18. As a priority for MC12, we see an opportunity for the WTO to demonstrate that the MTS can continue to help address the human catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate recovery. We call for pragmatic and effective ministerial outcomes that makes it easier to respond swiftly and effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate the recovery. Our priorities include supporting the facilitation of manufacturing, distribution, and supply chains of essential medical goods, including vaccines. We will work proactively and urgently in Geneva to support text-based discussions, including on a temporary waiver of certain intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.
“19. We reiterate our determination to negotiate effective disciplines on harmful fisheries subsidies in line with SDG 14.6, and call for agreement to a comprehensive and meaningful outcome by MC12 in a few weeks’ time.
“20. Despite its importance for ensuring global food security and sustainable economic development, agriculture is one of the most protected sectors in global trade. We recognise the need for a meaningful outcome on agriculture at MC12, reflecting our collective interests and sensitivities, with a view towards achieving substantial progressive reductions in support and protection, as envisaged in the continuation of the reform process provided in Article 20 of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture and existing mandates.
“21. We recognise the positive role that existing plurilateral negotiations and discussions are playing in progressing outcomes. APEC member participants in the relevant Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) call for conclusion of negotiations on services domestic regulation by MC12; and substantial progress by MC12 in the JSIs on e-commerce; micro, small and medium-sized enterprises; and investment facilitation for development. We take note of the efforts by the APEC economies who endorsed the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment to deliver an ambitious outcome at MC12 that supports the advancement of trade and gender equality.
“22, We continued our frank and constructive discussions regarding improvement to the WTO’s monitoring, negotiating and dispute settlement functions. We continue to support the ongoing and necessary reform work to improve the WTO’s functioning, including the importance of making progress on enhancing transparency to support its monitoring and negotiating functions. We will work together at the WTO and with the wider WTO membership to advance the proper functioning of the WTO’s negotiation and dispute settlement functions, which require addressing longstanding issues. We urge WTO members to seek a shared understanding of the types of reform needed.”
The Joint Statement has some specific items where outcomes are pursued — conclusion of the fisheries subsidies negotiations, some outcomes in the Joint Statement Initiatives (services domestic regulation should be completed; micro, small and medium-sized enterprises is completed; progress on others). As reviewed in yesterday’s post, WTO Members still have a challenging road to achieve a completed fisheries subsidies agreement at the 12th Ministerial. See November 9, 2021: WTO Fisheries Subsidies Negotiations — a second revised text from November 8 holds out hope for a deal by MC12; how realistic is the hope?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/09/wto-fisheries-subsidies-negotiations-a-second-revised-text-from-november-8-holds-out-hope-for-a-deal-by-mc12-how-realistic-is-the-hope/. Moreover, India, South Africa and others are raising objections to having any plurilaterals being negotiated included in the WTO which will complicate what comes out of the 12th Ministerial Conference (as opposed to encouraging Members to pursue plurilaterals outside of the WTO). See February 20, 2021: Will India and South Africa (and others) prevent future relevance of the WTO?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/20/will-india-and-south-africa-and-others-prevent-future-relevance-of-the-wto/; September 18, 2021: The WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Late November – early December 2021 — the struggle for relevance, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/09/18/the-wtos-12th-ministerial-conference-in-late-november-early-december-2021-the-struggle-for-relevance/.
The Joint Statement also seeks “pragmatic and effective” outcomes in the health and trade space to address responding to the COVID pandemic. Specifics are lacking although there is support to expanding production and access to vaccines and other medical goods. While supporting text based negotiations in the area, including on a possible temporary waiver of some TRIPS provisions on COVID vaccines, the lack of greater specificity reflects differences in positions of APEC members.
Similarly, while supporting WTO reform in all three areas of WTO activity (monitoring, negotiating and dispute settlement), APEC members have significantly different views on what is needed in these areas. Hence only general language is included in the Joint Statement.
In a prior post, I have opined that recent actions by the U.S. and EU to find ways around the civil aircaraft and steel and aluminum frictions suggests that the U.S. may agree to the start of a process to review the dispute settlement system issues raised by it as part of the 12th Ministerial (a high EU priority) and that the U.S. and EU could coalesce around an outcome acceptable to both in the TRIPS waiver dispute. See November 2, 2021: What does the U.S.-EU Agreement on steel and aluminum imply for the upcoming 12th WTO Ministerial Conference?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/02/what-does-the-u-s-eu-agreement-on-steel-and-aluminum-imply-for-the-upcoming-12th-wto-ministerial-conference/.
China has opposed greater transparency obligations and has tied reform of industrial subsidies to looking at agricultural subsidies as well. A recent post of mine reviews the need for better information on subsidies. See October 30, 2021: WTO reform — distortions to market access and the need for better information, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/10/30/wto-reform-distortions-to-market-access-and-the-need-for-better-information/. Despite differences of view on some issues among major Members, it is not out of the question that a reform program will cover an examination of all three functions going forward.
On agriculture, there is a shared view for a need for results at the WTO 12th Ministerial and reflects on the fact that Article 20 of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture calls for periodic rounds of liberalization. However, the language of the Joint Statement doesn’t specify the areas where agreement is possible by the 12th Ministerial, reflecting different views among APEC members.
Nothing in the APEC Joint Statement addressed what, if anything should be agreed at the 12th WTO Ministerial on the climate crisis and what role trade can play in addressing the crisis. This omission is unfortunate but likely reflects large differences in views within APEC members on the topic. As I reviewed in a recent post, much more is needed but unlikely to come from the WTO and its members. See November 4, 2021: The WTO and the environment — will the 2020s be different in terms of trade policies that are environmentally supportive?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/11/04/the-wto-and-the-environment-will-the-2020s-be-different-in-terms-of-trade-policies-that-are-environmentally-supportive/.
The APEC 2021 Ministerial Meeting Joint Statement, being released three weeks before the start of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference is a positive statement of support for the multilateral trading system. Coming from a group of WTO Members accounting for nearly 50% of global trade, it is a useful guide for topics these countries and territories will be pursuing in Geneva. Other group statements have been released as well as individual country or group objectives. But even within the APEC group of countries, large differences exist on outcomes of interest. With the exception of a possible conclusion to the fisheries subsidies negotiations and conclusions on several Joint Statement Initiatives, there may be only limited positive outcomes. There may be some limited agreement on the broad topic of health and trade and some agreement on topics for future negotiation. There may also be at least some provisions in a declaration dealing with the climate crisis and the important role trade can play in addressing the crisis.
Such a limited set of outcomes will likely be viewed as a success for an organization hamstrung by Members with no common vision for the role of the organization, with large differences in development levels, a cumbersome governance system and growing divergence on whether the organization can support global trade where market rules are not the required framework. More is needed for a truly relevant WTO and for a sustainable global trading system. The world is unlikely to achieve meaningful reform at the WTO in the coming decade. Progress, if any, will likely be slow and piecemeal.