Kazakhstan

WTO Accessions — perhaps the most valuable benefit for Members in the first 25 years of the WTO’s existence

Much has been written about the challenges facing the World Trade Organization twenty-five years after its birth at the beginning of 1995.

The Appellate Body (“AB”) has ceased functioning with the United States blocking the appointment of new AB members based on longstanding problems with the Dispute Settlement system that have not been addressed. There are fundamental differences among major Members in what the proper role of the dispute settlement system is. Because the AB’s view of its role has differed from that of at least some of the Members, many delegations have opted to litigate instead of negotiate on issues which are not covered by the actual language of existing agreements.

The negotiating function of the WTO has had limited success in the first 25 years of the WTO reflecting deep differences among Members in priorities and the core function of the WTO. The inability to update rules or develop new rules to address 21st century commercial realities has called into question the ongoing relevance of the organization Members have failed to honor agreement directions for periodic liberalization updates in agriculture and services trade. Members have also taken decades to tackle issues of pressing time sensitivity, such as fisheries subsidies.

And there are problems in the timeliness and completeness of notifications required by many agreements and the quality of the work of many of the Committees.

A bright spot for an organization in trouble has been the success of bringing additional countries and territories into the organization. Of the 164 members at present, 36 have joined since the WTO opened in 1995 and some 23 countries or territories are in the accession process at the moment. Some 98% of global trade is now covered by WTO Members. While there are many reasons for countries or territories to join the WTO, including integrating into the global economy and improving the competitiveness of the economy (Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff describes the benefits of accession as being a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth), there is no doubt that accessions are of benefit to the global trading system and bring the benefits of liberalization in the acceding country or territory to the existing WTO membership. Indeed, commitments of acceding Members in terms of tariff liberalization and other obligations typically are far higher than the commitments of existing Members at the same economic stage of development. Yet, accession is of great benefit to acceding countries. See WTO press release, 8 November 2020, DDG Wolff: WTO accession is a catalyst for domestic reform and economic growth, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_06nov20_e.htm. DDG Wolff, in speaking to Arab countries in the accession process made the following comments:

“Furthermore, during the last eight months, the world has experienced unprecedented levels of disruptions in people’s daily lives and their economic activities due to Covid-19. The world is not near the end of this crisis. Despite these challenging times, trade has played a key role in addressing local shortages of food, medical supplies and other essentials during the pandemic.

“Trade will have to play an even greater role in supporting recovery of the global economy going forward. In this context, we should recognise the important role played by Saudi Arabia in steering the G20 during this difficult year, urging collective and multilateral cooperation. The Riyadh Initiative is a praiseworthy effort endorsed by the G20 nations.

“The Arab region has not escaped the dire economic consequences of this pandemic. For some, the steep fall in oil prices has aggravated existing problems. A crisis, however, also presents opportunities for closer international cooperation to limit the harm from the pandemic and to spur the recovery.

“These issues demonstrate that more, not less, global and regional trade integration is required. Integration into the world economy goes hand in hand with necessary domestic reforms. This is where WTO accession makes particularly valuable contributions. Those engaged in the reform-driven accession process are likely to experience a quicker recovery and greater resilience in the future.

“Based on evidence from the 36 accessions which have been successfully completed, the WTO accession process has served as an effective external anchor for domestic reforms, acting as a catalyst in realizing the potential of their economies. According to the last WTO Director-General’s Annual Report on WTO Accessions, Article XII Members have registered higher growth rates of GDP and trade (exports and imports), as well as increased flows of inward FDI stocks, in the years following their accession compared to the rest of the world. These results indicate that integrated, open economies tend to grow faster. In addition, by signalling a government’s commitment to international rules, WTO membership appears to also encourage the inflow of foreign investment.

“The accession process has been used by resource-based countries to diversify their economies. Economic diversification is one of the major priorities for the governments in the Arab region. Our 2016 study examined whether countries’ export structures became more diversified after gaining WTO membership. This was true for about half of the recently acceded
Members, which increased the number of exported products, measured in HS chapters, accounting for more than 60% of their exports after accession. This was achieved often through rebranding their economies with WTO membership and attracting increased FDI.”

From 1995-2016, the thirty-six countries or territories that joined the WTO included many of the major economies that were not original Members of the WTO. These included China, Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The other countries or territories who have joined represent a wide cross-section of geographic regions and levels of development: Ecuador, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Panama, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Jordan, Georgia, Albania, Oman, Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, North Macedonia, Nepal, Cambodia, Tonga, Cabo Verde, Montenegro, Samoa, Vanuatu, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Tajikistan, Yemen, Seychelles, Kazakhstan, Liberia, and Afghanistan. No accessions have been completed since 2016.

The twenty-three countries and territories that are in the process of accession often are countries or territories that have suffered from years of conflict. This has led the WTO to host the first “Trade for Peace Week” from November 30-December 4, 2020. See WTO press release, 25 November 2020, WTO to host first Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/acc_25nov20_e.htm.

“In announcing the Trade for Peace Week, Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff noted: ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes international trade as an engine for inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction that contributes to the promotion of sustainable development. This in turn can facilitate building and maintaining peace. The connection between trade and peace is the raison d’être for the creation of the rules-based multilateral trading system that led to economic recovery and prosperity after the devastation from World War II.’

“Currently, 23 countries are in the process of joining the WTO, and over a half of them suffer from a fragile situation from years of conflicts. Launched in 2017, the Trade for Peace initiative aims to assist fragile and conflict-affected (FCA) countries through WTO accession, with the emphasis on institution building based on the principles of non-discrimination, predictability, transparency and the rule of law. Based on experiences of former FAC countries, WTO accession can help set the conditions to move out of a state of fragility or conflict into a state of stability, economic well-being and peace.”

There are ten events this week. The public can register to participate in the virtual panels. See WTO Accessions, Trade for Peace Week, https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/acc_e/t4peace2020_e.htm.

DDG Wolff spoke at one of today’s event and his comments are embedded below. See WTO press release, November 30, 2020, DDG Alan Wolff – DDG Wolff calls for more structured WTO cooperation with humanitarian and peace communities, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_30nov20_e.htm.

WTO-_-2020-News-items-Speech-DDG-Alan-Wolff-DDG-Wolff-calls-for-more-s

The twenty-three countries and territories in the process of accession include: Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belarus, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Comoros, Curacao, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanese Republic, Libya, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Timor-Leste, and Uzbekistan.

Conclusion

The genesis for the GATT and the other Bretton Woods institutions was a desire to provide an infrastructure and global rules to minimize the likelihood of future world wars. Cooperation, collaboration and integration would all reduce the likelihood of global conflict.

The WTO provides the opportunity for countries or territories struggling to escape violence to embark on a path of hope. That is a core mission of the WTO today just as it was for the GATT in the late 1940s.

Moreover, the record over the first twenty-five years of the WTO’s existence has been that those countries and territories who take the challenging steps to become Members of the WTO improve their economies and speed growth, development and foreign direct investment. Accessions also offer real improvements in market access for existing WTO Members. A true win-win situation.

For an organization struggling to maintain relevance amidst deep divisions among Members who seem to have lost the consensus on the core purpose of the organization, the pilgrimage of non-member countries and territories to join the organization is a beacon of hope. Serious reforms and updating of the rule book are desperately needed for a better functioning system where outcomes are based on underlying economic strengths and not the interference of governments. A willingness of Members to refocus on what the purpose of the WTO is in fact and to be supporters of contributing to the maximum of one’s ability will be key to forward movement. Inspiration can be drawn from the efforts of non-members to join.

World COVID-19 pandemic peaks on November 26 and starts to slowly recede

The most recent surge in COVID-19 cases (up from 3.57 million cases over a fourteen day period in early August to over 5 million for fourteen days on October 22 to over 8 million new cases for fourteen days on November 17), seems to have peaked on November 26 with 8,296,264 new cases over fourteen days and has been slowly receding for the last three days, down to 8,142,629 new cases during the period November 16-29. Total cases since the end of December 2019 now stand at 62,271,031 as of November 29 according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) publication “COVID-19 situation update worldwide, as of 29 November 2020”.

The World Health Organization puts out a publication that tracks cases and deaths on a weekly basis. COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update (data as of 22 November). While it breaks countries and territories into different configuarations that the ECDC, the publication shows new cases in the period November 16-22 declining 6% in Europe and in South East Asia while increasing 11% in the Americas, 5% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 15% in Africa and 9% in the Western Pacific. Because of the large spike in cases in the September – November period in many parts of the world, deaths in the November 16-22 period increased in all regions — up 10% in Europe, 15% in the Americas, 4% in South-East Asia, 10% in the Eastern Mediterranean, 30% in Africa and 1% in the Western Pacific. The latest report is embedded below.

20201124_Weekly_Epi_Update_15

The graphs in the WHO publication show by region the trajectory of new cases and deaths over time. The chart showing aggregate data show a flattening of total new cases in the last weeks of November while the number of deaths globally are sharply increasing.

The WHO Africa region peaked in the summer and has declined until the last few weeks when there has been some increase in both cases and deaths.

The Americas saw a peak in both new cases and deaths in the July period with some declines in new cases until the second half of September when the current surge started and accelerated in November. Deaths declined until early October before starting to grow again.

The Eastern Mediterranean peaked in May-June for both cases and deaths, declined through August/September and have surged to new heights with continued upward trajectory as of November 22.

The WTO European Region had an early surge of cases and deaths in the March-April period. Deaths receded sharply through August. While new cases have increased since summer, there was a massive increase in the September – end of October period in new cases and rising deaths through November.

The WHO South-East Asia region saw a huge increase in cases and deaths in the May-August period, peaking in early September and declining since then. Much of the data for the region reflect activity in India.

The Western Pacific Region has had several peaks in terms of deaths and in new cases, though the numbers are the lowest of any WHO region. The latest peak in new cases was in early August with some increase in the October-November period. Deaths last peaked in early September and have declined through November.

The United States

Turning back to the ECDC data, the United States continues to have more confirmed cases (13,246,651) than any other nation and more confirmed deaths from COVID-19 (266,063) than any other nation. The United States is also still experiencing a surge in new cases and rising deaths. October 31 was the first day that ECDC data show the U.S. recording 100,000 new cases in a single day. Since November 5, the U.S. has had more than 100,000 new cases every day up to November 29. It is the only country to record one million new cases in a week and the only country to record two million new cases in fourteen days. For the last fourteen days, the U.S. recorded 2,341,760 new cases. The U.S., which accounts for 4.3% of the global population, accounts for 21.27% of all COVID-19 cases that have been reported since December 2019 and accounted for 28.76% of new cases in the last two weeks. The rate of increase remains high for the United States — up 31.67% from the 1,778,530 new cases in the two weeks ending November 15. There are concerns that the number of new cases will continue to increase into the new year based on the high rate of infections in many parts of the country, major potential spreading events around holidays in November (Thanksgiving) and December, and limited compliance with basic requirements for limiting the spread of the virus.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 that the U.S. accounts for has declined from roughly 20% to 18.30% as of November 29. In the last two week, while the U.S. has the largest number of deaths in the two weeks, the percent of total deaths accounted for by the U.S. in the November 16-29 period was 14.65%. However, many cities, communities and even states are at or nearing the limits of the health care capacity with hospitalizations now about 90,000, limits on health care professionals with the surging cases and some challenges on personal protective equipment. Thus, models used by the government projects a continued rise in the number of deaths in the coming months.

While the first vaccine could receive emergency approval for distribution in the U.S. as early as December 10, and the U.S. could have two or three vaccines in distribution in early 2021, the United States will unfortunately likely be a major part of the continued high rate of infections and deaths well into 2021.

Europe

While Europe had faced early challenges in a number of western European countries in February-April and very high death rates in a number of countries, the second wave of cases following the relaxation of restrictions in time for summer vacations accounted for the vast majority of the incrase in new cases during the October and early November time period. In earlier posts, I showed that Europe and the U.S. accounted for nearly all of the increase from 5 million new cases in the two weeks ending October 22 to the more than 8 million new cases in the two weeks ending November 17. See November 17, 2020, New COVID-19 cases over a fourteen day period continue to soar past eight million, up from five million on October 22, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/17/new-covid-19-cases-over-a-fourteen-day-period-continue-to-soar-past-eight-million-up-from-five-million-on-october-22/

While some of the major countries, including France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and others have seen significant reductions in the number of new cases in recent weeks from the extraordinary figures recorded in late October, early November, numbers remain very high for a number of countries including Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania and Luxembourg — all of whom had new cases/100,000 population in the last fourteen days that were higher than the United States.

Because deaths lag new cases by a number of weeks, it is perhaps less surprising that much of Europe had deaths/100,000 population in the last fourteen days that were higher than the United States, most at rates that were two-three times the U.S. rate. The rate for the world in total was 1.82 deaths per 100,000 population for the November 16-29 period. The U.S. was 3.38 times the global average at 6.22 deaths per 100,000 population in that two week period. The following 25 European countries exceeded the U.S. rate: France (11.76 deaths/100,000 population); Italy (16.04); Spain (8.31); United Kingdom (9.40); Armenia (12.81); Austria (13.47); Belgium (18.84); Moldova (6.50); Poland (16.65); Portugal (10.30); Romania (11.50); Serbia (7.11); Switzerland (14.98); Bulgaria (23.69); Croatia (15.92); Czechia (18.74); Greece (11.08); Hungary (16.12); Lithuania (8.12); Luxembourg (13.19); Malta (6.79); Slovenia (19.85); Bosnia and Herzegovina (20.75); Georgia (13.19); and North Macedonia (20.12).

With new restrictions in recent weeks bringing new cases down in a number of European countries, death rates should start to decline as well in the coming weeks. Challenges in terms of superspreader events in Europe include holiday travel and events and winter holidays and sports. Germany has proposed placing restrictions on the ski season to try to minimize increased cases from a sport popular across much of Europe. See DW, 26 November 2020, Coronavirus: Germany seeks EU-wide ban on ski trips, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-germany-seeks-eu-wide-ban-on-ski-trips/a-55732273.

The EU has contracts with at least six pharmaceutical companies or groups for vaccines if approved. The EU and United Kingdom will start to see vaccine dosages within weeks assuming approval in their jurisdictions.

Other countries

While much of the rest of the world has not seen great increases in the number of cases that is not true for all countries. For example, Iran which had 136,753 new cases in the November 2-15 period showed 186,274 new cases in the November 16-29 period (+36.21%). Jordan, which has a total number of cases of 210,709 since the end of December has recorded 65.54% of that total in the last four weeks (68,698 new cases during November 2-15; 69,404 new cases during November 16-29). Similarly, Morocco which has a total of 349,688 cases since December 2019 has more than 37% recorded in the last four weeks (69,127 during November 2-15; 61,477 during November 16-29).

In the Americas the following countries in addition to the United States have two week totals to November 29 greater than 100,000 new cases: Argentina (108,531); Brazil (441,313); Colombia (108,609). The following countries besides the United States have more than one million cases since late December 2019: Argentina (1,413,362); Brazil (6,290,272); Colombia (1,299,613), Mexico (1,100,683). Eleven other countries have more than 100,000 cases (with Peru having 960,368). Other than the U.S., countries are facing different trend lines, many down, some showing increases (e.g., Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Paraguay).

In Asia, while India continues to see declines in the number of new cases, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, South Korea, showed increased in the most recent two weeks, some quite large. This is in addition to Iran reviewed previously.

In Africa, South Africa has the most cases and saw an increase from 23,730 new cases during November 2-15 to 35,967 during November 16-29. Morocco was reviewed above. Most other major countries in Africa saw declines in recent weeks.

Conclusion

The world in the first eleven months of 2020 has struggled to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control with several major surge periods. The global number of new cases seems to have plateaued over the last week or so at extraordinarily high levels and the death rates has been climbing after a long period where deaths appeared to be declining. It is likely that the death rate will continue to increase for the rest of 2020.

After a period during the summer and early fall where restrictions in a number of countries were being relaxed, many countries in the norther hemisphere are reimposing various restrictions in an effort to dampen the spread of the coronavirus. While trade has significantly rebounded from the sharp decline in the second quarter of 2020, services trade remains more than 30% off of 2019 levels driven by the complete collapse of international travel and tourism. Many WTO members have put forward communications on actions that could be considered to speed economic recovery. The most recent was the Ottawa Group’s communication about a possible Trade and Health Initiative. See November 27, 2020, The Ottawa Group’s November 23 communication and draft elements of a trade and health initiative, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/27/the-ottawa-groups-november-23-communication-and-draft-elements-of-a-trade-and-health-initiative/.

The WTO TRIPS Council has a request for a waiver from most TRIPS obligations for all WTO Members on medical goods and medicines relevant to COVID-19 on which a recommendation is supposed to be forwarded to the General Council by the end of 2020 though it is opposed by a number of major Members with pharmaceutical industries. See November 2, 2020, India and South Africa seek waiver from WTO intellectual property obligations to add COVID-19 – issues presented, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/02/india-and-south-africa-seek-waiver-from-wto-intellectual-property-obligations-to-address-covid-19-issues-presented/.

With vaccines very close to approval in major markets like the United States and the European Union, there will be increased focus on efforts to ensure availability of vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics globally on equitable and affordable terms. GAVI, CEPI and the WHO have been leading this initiative with the support of many governments and private sector players. Pharmaceutical companies also have global distribution plans being pursued in addition to the above efforts.

So there hopefully is light at the end of the tunnel that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on the world. But vaccines without vaccinations won’t solve the pandemic’s grip. So communication and outreach globally will be critical to seeing that available vaccines are properly used. And all peoples need to be able to access the vaccines, some of which will be less available simply because of the infrastructure needs to handle the vaccines.

Trade policy options to minimize trade restrictions coupled with global cooperation and coordination should result in the world being able to rebuild in 2021 and beyond as more and more of the world is vaccinated.

Multilateral efforts to help the poorest countries deal with debt, make available trade finance and other actions continue to be a pressing need. Better plans and preparation for pandemics of the future are clearly needed. Reports suggest that many of the poorest countries have experienced loss of a decade or more of economic advancement during the pandemic. Building back greener and in a sustainable manner is critical for all.

The efforts of developed country governments and others to provide the stimulus domestically to reduce the downward spiral of the individual national economies and the global economy has been critical to limiting the damage at home and abroad. But the assumption of large amounts of debt will also pose significant challenges moving forward because of the greatly heightened national debt/GDP ratios that have developed and may restrict options for individual governments moving forward.

What is certain is that 2020 will be remembered as a year in which a virus inflicted enormous damage to the global health and to the global economy. Collectively, the level of spread has been far greater than should have been possible. Many nations were not prepared. Some, like the United States, exacerbated the problems through a lack of national government planning and messaging. Others like many in Europe, having done a good job of controlling the spread in the early months, made major mistakes as they opened up for summer vacations and didn’t deal with the problems that resulted from the reopening and experienced breathtaking surges which roughly doubled the global daily rate of new cases in five-six weeks and have led to the reimposition of a series of restrictions to try to tame the pandemic a second time. We collectively are better than the results achieved to date. The number of deaths in advanced countries is simply disgraceful.

2021 offers the opportunity for the world to come together and put COVID-19 behind us. Whether we will come to the end of 2021 and feel that this global nightmare is behind us and that there are national and global game plans to rebuild in a greener and more sustainable manner with greater opportunities for all is the question. Hopefully, the answer will be yes.

WTO remaining candidates for the Director-General position — Questions and Answers from the July 15 and 16 meetings with the General Council

The third round of consultations with WTO Members on which of the two remaining candidates is preferred and hence may be the most likely to obtain consensus to become the next Director-General gets started next Monday, October 19 and ends on October 27.

Both Minister Yoo of Korea and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria are in the process of seeking support from WTO Members and have the full support of their governments which are making calls and sending letters to government officials in many of the WTO Members.

Minister Yoo is back in Europe seeking support in this third round (she and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala both received preferences from the EU in the second round). Press reports indicate that China is believed to be supporting Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, and Japan is understood to have concerns with both candidates. Thus, Minister Yoo is working to bolster support in other regions of the world to supplement what is assumed to be only partial support within Asia.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has received the support from Kenya after Kenya’s candidate did not advance to the third round. It is not clear whether she will receive support from all African Members of the WTO, although Kenya’s action is obviously an imortant positive for her.

So the next eleven days will be an active time as each of the remaining candidates seeks support in the final round of consultations from Members in different geographical areas as well as in different categories (developed, developing and least developed countries).

One source of information about the candidates that hasn’t been available to the public but is now available is the questions and answers provided to the General Council meetings with each candidate on July 15 (Dr. Okonjo-Iweala) and July16 (Minister Yoo). While there were three days of meetings with the General Council to accommodate the eight candidates, the two remaining candidates appeared during the first two days. The Minutes of the Meeting of the General Council, 15-17 July 2020 are contained in WT/GC/M/185 (31 August 2020). The procedures for each candidate were reviewed by the General Council Chairman David Walker (New Zealand).

“Each candidate would be invited to make a brief presentation lasting no more than fifteen minutes. That would be followed by a question-and-answer period of no more than one hour and fifteen minutes. During the last five minutes of the question-and-answer period, each candidate would have the opportunity to make a concluding statement if she or he so wished.” (page 1, para. 1.5).

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s statement, questions asked, answers given and closing statement are in Annex 2 on pages 16-26. Minister Yoo Myung-hee’s statement, questions asked, answers given and closing statement are in Annex 5 on pages 51-60. The statements have previously been reviewed in my posts and are available on the WTO webpage.

Questions are picked randomly from Members who indicated an interest in asking questions. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala received questions during the meeting from nineteen Members with another thirty-nine Members having submitted their names to ask questions of her. Minister Yoo received questions during her meeting from seventeen Members with another forty-four Members having submitted their names to ask questions of her.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s questions came from Afghanistan, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, European Union, Paraguay, Estonia, Australia, Latvia, Guatemala, Japan, Mongolia, Brazil, and Malaysia. The questions dealt with a range of issues including the following sample:

  • The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on developing countries, LDCs and small vulnerable economies (SVEs).
  • How to ensure the benefits of open trade are distributed equitably?
  • What steps will you undertake to ensure a multilateral outcome at the next Ministerial?
  • Role of the Director-General (DG) in addressing lack of trust among Members.
  • Role of the DG in facilitating economic recovery and resilience.
  • What is necessary to restore functioning of a binding, two-step dispute settlement system in the WTO?
  • Do transparency and notification obligations need to be strengthened?
  • Focus in the first 100 days.
  • Your initial approach to the reform of the WTO.
  • What kind of approach and efforts would you like to make to advance the subject of e-commerce?
  • Role of plurilaterals in the WTO.
  • How to deal with the different views on special and differential treatment?
  • What are your plans relating to empowering women in the future WTO agenda?

Minister Yoo’s questions came from Guatemala, Belgium, United States, India, Germany, El Salvador, Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka, Spain, Qatar, Lithuania, Gabon, Botswana, China, Barbados, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe. The questions dealt with a range of issues including the following sample:

  • Do you have any proposal on how to overcome the current crisis?
  • How do you plan to include measures to respect sustainable trade in an agenda focused on free trade and trade liberalization?
  • In looking at interim arbitration agreement of EU and other countries, is it appropriate for WTO resources to be used for activities that go beyond what is contemplated by the DSU?
  • How to convince Members that the multilateral trading system is still best way forward over bilateral and plurilateral trading arrangements?
  • Is there a gap in the WTO rulebook with regard to level playing field issues such as subsidies, economic action by the State and competition?
  • Do you have a multilateral solution to issues like e-commerce which are being tackled in the Joint Statement Initiatives that would be of interest to a large number of Members?
  • WTO is lagging behind in pursuing the development dimension; what is the path forward?
  • Role of DG re fighting protectionism and unilateral measures.
  • How to strike a balance between public stockholding and food security and the avoidance of unnecessary trade restrictions?
  • What is your view on the Doha Development Agenda?
  • What role the WTO can play to help drive Africa’s integration agenda?
  • What is the most important issue to achieve results?

Both candidates gave extensive answers to the questions posed while avoiding staking out a position on any issue that is highly controversial within the WTO. The answers are worth reading in their entirety. As a result the minutes of the meeting are embedded below.

WTGCM185

Each candidate in their summing up at the end of her meeting with the General Council circled back to their prepared statement. Their short summing up statements are copied below.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (page 26):

“The nature of the questions that I have heard and the nature of the discussions give me hope. Members are clearly interested in a WTO that works, in a WTO that is different from what we have now, in a WTO that shows a different face to the world. I can see it and I can feel it. And if ever I am selected as Director-General, that gives me hope that there is a foundation to work on. Before coming in here, I have spoken to several Members, but I did not really know that. From listening to all of you and fielding your questions, I now know that there is a basis to work on. And I want to thank you for it.

“And I really want to end where I began. Trade is very important for a prosperous and a recovered world in the 21st century. The WTO is at the centre of this. A renewed WTO is a mission that we must all undertake, and we need every Member, regardless of economic size, to participate in this. If we want the world to know who we are as the WTO, we have to commit. Having listened to you, I hear the commitment and I want to thank you sincerely for that.”

Minister Yoo Myung-hee (page 60):

“I spent the past few days meeting with Ambassadors and delegates in Geneva. When I listen to your views, together with the questions today, it seems that there are diverse views and priorities of Members – whether it concerns the negotiations, how to pursue development objectives and special and differential treatment, the plurilaterals or restoring the Appellate Body function. So, how can we, a dynamic group of 164 Members with different social and economic environments, come to an agreement? This brings me back to my original message. We need to rebuild trust in the WTO. How? Amid these divergent and different views of Members, I would share the commitment and hope to restoring and revitalizing the WTO.

“This pandemic has forced us to reflect upon what is needed from the multilateral trading system. Despite the current challenges, I have a firm belief in the multilateral trading system and what we can actually achieve in the future if we put our heads together and also our hearts into it. We are embarking on a new journey towards a new chapter for the WTO. Building on the past twenty-five years, when we embark on the new journey for the next twenty-five years, I am ready to provide a new leadership that will harness all the frustrations but most importantly all the hopes from Members to make the WTO more relevant, resilient and responsive for the next twenty-five years and beyond.”

Conclusion

The process that WTO Members agreed on in 2002 to promote a process for finding a candidate for a new Director-General is cumbersome, time consuming and burdensome for candidates brave enough to put their hat in the ring. To date, the 2002 process has resulted in Members agreeing by consensus on a new Director-General (2005 and 2013). The process in 2020 has worked remarkably smoothly as well despite the deep divisions in the membership and the multiple-pronged crisis facing the organization.

The two finalists bring different backgrounds and skill sets to be considered by Members. Each started strong in the General Council meetings in mid-July as can be seen from their answers to questions posed, and each has continued to impress many Members in the subsequent months. There are political considerations in the selection process of the Director-General (just as in any major leadership position of an international organization). Both candidates are getting active support of their home governments. Fortunately, the membership has two qualified and very interesting candidates to consider. Whoever emerges as the candidate most likely to achieve consensus among the Members will still face the hurdle of whether any Member (or group of Members) will block the consensus. While that seems unlikely at the present time, one never knows.

Whoever becomes the next Director-General will face the daunting challenges of an organization with all three major functions not operating as needed, deep divisions among major players and among major groups. The lack of forward movement and the lack of trust among Members will weigh heavily on the new Director-General with a narrow window before the next Ministerial Conference likely to take place next June. It is remarkable that talented individuals with long histories of accomplishments would be willing to take on the problems the WTO is weighed down with at the present time. Hopefully, the next Director-General will be known in the next three weeks.

COVID-19 – WTO report on medical goods; FAO report on food security

The World Trade Organization has a page on its website that is dedicated to COVID-19 including references to statements from various governments, international organizations, business groups, information from the WTO itself including a compilation of notifications by Members of actions (whether trade limiting or trade expanding) taken in response to COVID-19, and links to a range of websites providing important information on the pandemic. Joint statements are also included. See today’s joint statement between the WTO and the World Customs Organization, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_06apr20_e.htm.

Last Friday, April 3rd, the WTO released a sixteen page note entitled “Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling COVID-19”. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/rese_03apr20_e.pdf. The note is very useful in terms of providing some definition to a range of products relevant to handling the COVID-19 crisis, identifying major importers and exporters of various product types and providing information on tariffs on the product categories for all WTO Members. The note identifies the following “key points”:

“• Germany, the United States (US), and Switzerland supply 35% of medical products;

“• China, Germany and the US export 40% of personal protective products;

“• Imports and exports of medical products totalled about $2 trillion, including intra-EU trade, which represented approximately 5% of total world merchandise trade in 2019;

“• Trade of products described as critical and in severe shortage in COVID-19 crisis totalled about $597 billion, or 1.7% of total world trade in 2019;

“• Tariffs on some products remain very high. For example, the average applied tariff for hand soap is 17% and some WTO Members apply tariffs as high as 65%;

“• Protective supplies used in the fight against COVID-19 attract an average tariff of 11.5% and goes as high as 27% in some countries;

“• The WTO has contributed to the liberalization of trade medical products in three main ways:

“➢ The results of tariff negotiations scheduled at the inception of the WTO in 1995;

“➢ Conclusion of the plurilateral sectoral Agreement on Pharmaceutical Products (“Pharma Agreement”) in the Uruguay Round and its four subsequent reviews;

“➢ The Expansion of the Information Technology Agreement in 2015.”

As is true with any analysis of data, the reader needs to understand what is covered and what is not and how good a fit the data provided have with the topic being discussed.

For example, the note reviews four categories of products relevant to the world addressing the COVID-19 pandemic (page 1):

  • “medicines (pharmaceuticals) – including both dosified and bulk medicines;
  • “medical supplies – refers to consumables for hospital and laboratory use (e.g., alcohol, syringes, gauze, reagents, etc.);
  • “medical equipment and technology; and
  • “personal protective products -hand soap and sanitizer, face masks, protective spectacles.”

While the four categories are, of course, relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the products covered by the tariff schedule categories are both over- and underinclusive if one is trying to understand the size of global trade in medical products directly relevant to the global efforts to address COVID-19.

The report’s data are overinclusive because the Harmonized System of Tariffs used by most nations is only harmonized to the six-digit level of specificity. The categories included in the WTO note cover both COVID-19 related products and many others. Stated differently, nearly all of the product categories identified in Annex 1 to the note include at least some items that are not germane to the current pandemic. This is a limitation on the usefulness of the data flowing from the lack of more specific classifications that all countries adhere to. As the six-digit data are all that are available with a consistent definition around the world, it is not surprising that the WTO relied on the data. Arguably better, but not uniform data could have been derived by reviewing the 8-, 9- or 10-digit statistical data for imports and exports of at least major Members, but that was not done.

Similarly, the product coverage is underinclusive as recognized in the WTO note (page 2). “It should be noted that this note focuses solely on the final form of these products and does not extent to the different intermediate products that are used by global value chains in their production. The protective garments for surgical/medical use are not included in the analysis, because it is impossible to distinguish them from general clothing product in the HS classification.”

As governments and companies have articulated over the last several months, many of the key final products (e.g., ventilators) require a large number of inputs which are often sourced from a variety of suppliers around the globe. For example, one ventilator company which assembles the ventilators in the United States is reliant on circuit boards from its facility in China to maintain or increase production. Other companies bring various inputs in from Canada or Mexico or other countries as well as shipping U.S. components to other countries for final assembly. The same reality is obviously true for producers of medical goods in other countries as well. Thus, an inability to cover inputs significantly understates global trade volumes of products relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, there are shortages in many countries of the protective garments for which no data are included. These are important products traded that are directly relevant to the world’s ability to respond to COVID-19. The lack of coverage of those products understates the importance of personal protective products to the total and understates global trade.

The above is simply to say, the sections of the WTO note that look at trade patterns (imports, exports, leading players) are helpful in identifying possible breaks between products and possible major players but the data may be significantly off from the actual split among products or role of major players if complete data limited to products relevant for addressing COVID-19 were available. It may also understate the importance of keeping markets open even if there are relatively few imports of finished products.

To explore how overstated data may be, if one looks at the HS categories shown in Annex 1 for personal protective products and looks at the United States U.S. imports for consumption for 2019 at the 10-digit HTS level of detail, the top seven 10-digit categories by customs value accounted for more than 72% of the $17 billion in imports. Yet each of the categories would contain many products not actually relevant to efforts to address COVID-19. In fact five of the seven categories are basket categories.

3926.90.9990OTHER ARTICLES OF PLASTIC, NESOI
6307.90.9889OTHER MADE-UP ARTICLES NESOI
3824.99.9297CHEMICAL PRODUCTS AND PREPARATIONS AND RESIDUAL PRODUCTS OF THE CHEMICAL OR ALLIED INDUSTRIES, NESOI
9004.90.0000SPECTACLES, GOGGLES AND THE LIKE, CORRECTIVE, PROTECTIVE, NESOI
3926.90.7500PNEUMATIC MATTRESSES & OTHR INFLATABLE ARTICLES,NESOI
3824.99.3900MIXTURES OF TWO OR MORE INORGANIC COMPOUNDS
3926.90.4590OTHER GASKETS AND WASHERS & OTHER SEALS

Similarly, the analysis of applied tariff rates is useful in showing rates for product groupings and the rates for individual countries for those product groupings but may be less useful in identifying the assistance tariff reductions would have in the present time of the pandemic. Obviously, tariff reductions by any Member that imposes them on imported products relevant to the pandemic would reduce the cost for the importing country of the needed materials. But the extent of assistance varies significantly depending on the Member as the data in Annex 2 show.

As the EU/EEA/United Kingdom and the United States account for 73.9% of the confirmed cases in the world as of April 6, 2020, a review of the applied rates for those countries would identify likely benefit from tariff reductions by the countries with the major outbreaks at the moment. The EU has an average applied rate of 1.5%, the U.S. an average applied rate of 0.9%, Norway 0.6% and Switzerland 0.7%. These rates don’t include any special duties, such as US duties on China flowing from the Section 301 investigation (with some products being subject to potential waiver of additional duties). Thus, for the vast majority of current cases, the importing countries’ applied rates are very low and hence not a significant barrier to trade.

https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2kistan019-ncov-cases; https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/cases-2019-ncov-eueea

Other countries where the reach of the pandemic may intensify typically have much higher applied tariffs. As case loads intensify in other countries or in anticipation of such potential eventualities, countries with higher tariffs should be exploring autonomous duty reductions to make imported products more affordable. India has an average applied tariff of 11.6%; Pakistan an average rate of 10.0% and Malaysia a rate of 11.7% to flag just three Members with rates at or above 10%.

The WTO note is embedded below.

rese_03apr20_e

Food security and the FAO analysis of current agricultural product availability

In a prior post, I reviewed the compounding problems during the COVID-19 pandemic of some countries starting to impost export restraints on selected products (e.g., rice, wheat) to protect food supplies. Countries reported to be imposing export restraints on food had been Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. A series of articles in Asian and European press have noted that Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia have also introduced various restraints as well. Major agricultural groups in Asia are warning that disrupting movement of food (including movement of workers to help harvest, etc.) could lead to food shortages in Asia and have reviewed that Asian countries import some 220 million tons of agricultural products which underlines the need to keep markets open. See, e.g., https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3078376/coronavirus-food-security-asias-next-battle-post-covid-world; https://www.dairyreporter.com/Article/2020/03/30/Major-food-shortages-possible-in-Asia-says-FIA#.

While fear can lead to panic and various border measures, the actual situation globally as laid out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (“FAO”) in a recent paper is that there are more than sufficient supplies of food. The key is minimizing disruptions to production and distribution. This is not a period where major disruptions from drought or floods have caused shortages of products. Specifically, the FAO’s Chief Economist prepared a document entitled “COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond?” which was released on March 29. http://www.fao.org/3/ca8388en/CA8388EN.pdf. The paper starts with a section entitled “What we know”:

“Countries have shut down the economy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now. But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more. The shipping industry is already reporting slowdowns because of port closures, and logistics hurdles could disrupt the supply chains in coming weeks.

“In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going. Unlike the 2007-2008 global food crisis, scarcity is not an issue this time. The supply of staple commodities is functioning well, and the crops need to be transported to where they are needed most. Restricting trade is not only unnecessary, it would hurt producers and consumers and even create panic in the markets. For high-value commodities that require workers (instead of machines) for production, countries must strike a balance between the need to keep production going and the need to protect the workers.

“As countries combat the coronavirus pandemic, they must also make every effort to keep the gears of their food supply chains moving.”

The paper then goes on to identify five actions needed to minimize the likelihood of food shortages arising during the pandemic. These actions are:

“Expand and improve emergency food assistance and social protection programs

“Give smallholder farmers support to both enhance their productivity and market the food they produce, also through e-commerce channels

“Keep the food value chain alive by focusing on key logistics bottlenecks

“Address trade and tax policies to keep the global trade open

“Manage the macroeconomic ramifications”.

With the number of countries already taking actions that are inconsistent with keeping global markets open for the movement of food supplies, the world is at risk of having a major complication added to the extrordinary economic shocks already being felt to address the health needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a major complication would, as it did in 2007-2008, directly harm developing and least developed countries, countries least able to absorb additional shocks.

The report and a powerpoint from FAO are embedded below.

COVID-19-and-the-risk-to-food-supply-chains_-How-to-respond_

ca8308en

Food security – export restraints and border controls during the COVID-19 pandemic

While COVID-19 is first and foremost a health crisis, efforts to control the fallout from the virus have led to border controls on farm workers and encouraged some countries to impose export restraints on particular agricultural products. While the border control dimension to the problem is new, the world has in recent years gone through a number of situations where large numbers of countries have imposed export restraints on core agricultural products in an effort to ensure adequate supplies at home. The results are never positive for the global community and particularly harm the least developed countries and those dependent on imported food products.

For example, in 2007-2008, there were dozens of countries that imposed export restraints on specific items such as rice or wheat leading to massive price spikes and shortages of product available to countries dependent on imports. The nature and extent of the problem was outlined in a paper I prepared back in 2008 which is embedded below.

GDP

The crisis led to coordinated efforts by the various UN organizations to find solutions and ways of avoiding repeats moving forward. A policy report from multiple UN agencies was released on 2 June 2011, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses.

igo_10jun11_report_e

Unfortunately, a number of countries in reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic have introduced export restraints on certain food products. Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam are some of the countries identified so far as introducing export restraints on selected agricultural products. In the past, export restraints by some have led to export restraints by many. The possibility of rapidly expanding restraints by trading nations is obviously a major concern and major complication to the global response to COVID-19.

Equally troubling are the potential challenges to agricultural product availability in countries that rely to some extent on temporary foreign labor to harvest produce and other products where border measures are restricting access of foreigners to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. Coupled to that are concerns about whether imported agricultural products meet health and quality needs and any changes in approach to those issues during the pandemic.

As one example of the farm labor concern, the United States is a country that relies on temporary farm workers from outside of the country and has significant restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals from many areas at present. U.S. farmers have raised concerns about the availability of sufficient migrant labor to harvest the fields when product is ready. How the issue gets resolved in the United States is not yet clear. But the same or similar challenges will apply in any country where imported farm labor is important to the harvesting, processing or transporting of agricultural products.

That these multiple potential issues on agricultural goods trade are escalating can be seen in yesterday’s joint statement from the WTO, WHO and FAO. The joint statement is available on the WTO webpage, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_26mar20_e.htm, and is reproduced below:

“Joint Statement by QU Dongyu, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Roberto Azevêdo, Directors-General of FAO, WHO and WTO

“Millions of people around the world depend on international trade for
their food security and livelihoods. As countries move to enact measures
aiming to halt the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic, care must be taken
to minimise potential impacts on the food supply or unintended
consequences on global trade and food security.

“When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens,
countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt
the food supply chain. Such disruptions including hampering the
movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending
border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste. Food trade restrictions could also be linked
to unjustified concerns on food safety. If such a scenario were to
materialize, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly
pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food insecure
populations.

“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export
restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions can
alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price
spikes and increased price volatility. We learned from previous crises
that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit
countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure food for those in desperate need.

“We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage. Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements.   

“We must also ensure that information on food-related trade measures, levels of food production, consumption and stocks, as well as on food prices, is available to all in real time. This reduces uncertainty and allows producers, consumers and traders to make informed decisions. Above all, it helps contain ‘panic buying’ and the hoarding of food and other essential items.

“Now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world.  We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”

Conclusion

There is little doubt that COVID-19 is placing extraordinary strains on countries, their peoples, their economies and the ability and willingness to act globally as opposed to locally. The strains and how the world reacts will shape the world going forward and determine the magnitude of the devastation that occurs in specific markets and the broader global community.

The UN report released yesterday, Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, and the statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres outline the enormity of the global challenges and a potential path to a better future. See https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1060702; https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/sg_report_socio-economic_impact_of_covid19.pdf.

The global health emergency is significantly worsened by the introduction of food security issues. Despite a better understanding of the causes and necessary approaches to minimize food security issues, the world has a poor track record on working for the collective good in agriculture when fears of food availability arise. An eruption of export restraints at the time of the global COVID-19 health crisis could indeed undermine societal stability.

Export restraints vs. trade liberalization during a global pandemic — the reality so far with COVID-19

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases (COVID-19) as of March 26, 2020 was approaching 500,000 globally, with the rate of increase in cases continuing to surge in a number of important countries or regions (e.g., Europe and the United States) with the locations facing the greatest strains shifting over time.

In an era of global supply chains, few countries are self-sufficient in all medical supplies and equipment needed to address a pandemic. Capacity constraints can occur in a variety of ways, including from overall demand exceeding the supply (production and inventories), from an inability or unwillingness to manage supplies on a national or global basis in an efficient and time responsive manner, by the reduction of production of components in one or more countries reducing the ability of downstream producers to complete products, by restrictions on modes of transport to move goods internationally or nationally, from the lack of availability of sufficient medical personnel or physical facilities to handle the increased work load and lack of facilities.

The reality of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over weeks within a given country or region can overwhelm the ability of the local health care system to handle the skyrocketing demand. When that happens, it is a nightmare for all involved as patients can’t be handled properly or at all in some instances, death rates will increase, and health care providers and others are put at risk from a lack of adequate supplies and protective gear. Not surprisingly, shortages of supplies and equipment have been identified in a number of countries over the last three months where the growth in cases has been large. While it is understandable for national governments to seek to safeguard supplies of medical goods and equipment to care for their citizens, studies over time have shown that such inward looking actions can be short sighted, reduce the global ability to handle the crisis, increase the number of deaths and prevent the level of private sector response that open markets would support.

As we approach the end of March, the global community receives mixed grades on their efforts to work jointly and to avoid beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Many countries have imposed one or more restraints on exports of medical supplies and equipment with the number growing rapidly as the spread of COVID-19 outside of China has escalated particularly in March. Indeed, when one or more countries impose export restraints, it often creates a domino effect as countries who may depend in part on supplies from one or more of those countries, decides to impose restraints as well to limit shortages in country.

At the same time, the G-7, G-20 and others have issued statements or other documents indicating their political desire to minimize export restraints and keep trade moving. The WTO is collecting information from Members on actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 to improve transparency and to enable WTO Members to identify actions where self-restraint or roll back would be useful. And some countries have engaged in unilateral tariff reductions on critical medical supplies and equipment.

Imposition of Export Restraints

The World Customs Organization has developed a list of countries that have imposed some form of export restraint in 2020 on critical medical supplies. In reviewing the WCO website today, the following countries were listed: Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, European Union, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. Today’s listing is copied below.

List-of-Countries-having-adopted-temporary-export-control-measures-Worl.._

While China is not listed on the WCO webpage, it is understood that they have had some restrictions in fact at least during the January-February period of rapid spread of COVID-19 in China.

While it is surprising to see the European Union on the list, the Official Journal notice of the action indicates that the action is both temprary (six weeks – will end around the end of April) and flows in part from the fact that sources of product used by the EU had been restricting exports. The March 15, 2020 Official Journal notice is attached below.

EC-Implementing-Regulation-EU-2020-402-of-14-March-2020-making-the-exportation-of-certain-products-subject-to-the-production-of-an-export-authorisation

Professor Simon Evenett, in a March 19, 2020 posting on VOX, “Sickening thy neighbor: Export restraints on medical supplies during a pandemic,” https://voxeu.org/article/export-restraints-medical-supplies-during-pandemic, reviews the challenges posed and provides examples of European countries preventing exports to neighbors — Germany preventing a shipment of masks to Switzerland and France preventing a shipment to the U.K.

In a webinar today hosted by the Washington International Trade Association and the Asia Society Policy Institute entitled “COVID-19 and Trade – A WTO Agenda,” Prof. Evenett reviewed his analysis and noted that the rate of increase for export restraints was growing with 48 of 63 actions occurring in March and 8 of those occurring in the last forty-eight hours. A total of 57 countries are apparently involved in one or more restraints. And restraints have started to expand from medical supplies and equipment to food with four countries mentioned by Prof. Evenett – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam.

Efforts to keep markets open and liberalize critical medical supplies

Some countries have reduced tariffs on critical medical goods during the pandemic and some countries have also implemented green lane approaches for customs clearance on medical supplies and goods. Such actions are clearly permissible under the WTO, can be undertaken unilaterally and obviously reduce the cost of medical supplies and speed up the delivery of goods that enter from offshore. So it is surprising that more countries don’t help themselves by reducing tariffs temporarily (or permanently) on critical medical supplies and equipment during a pandemic.

Papers generated by others show that there are a large number of countries that apply customs duties on medical supplies, equipment and soaps and disinfectants. See, e.g., Jennifer Hillman, Six Proactive Steps in a Smart Trade Approach to Fighting COVID-19 (graphic from paper reproduced below), https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/six-proactive-steps-smart-trade-approach-fighting-covid-19

Groups of countries have staked out positions of agreeing to work together to handle the pandemic and to keep trade open. For example, the G20 countries had a virtual emergency meeting today to explore the growing pandemic. Their joint statement can be found here and is embedded below, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.pdf.

dgra_26mar20_e

There is one section of the joint statement that specifically addresses international trade disruptions during the pandemic. That language is repeated below:

“Addressing International Trade Disruptions

“Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well-being of all people.

“We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. We task our Trade Ministers to assess the impact of the pandemic on trade.

“We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”

The WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo participated in the virtual meeting with the G20 leaders and expressed strong support for the commitment of the G20 to working on the trade related aspects of the pandemic. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.htm.

Separately, New Zealand and Singapore on March 21st issued a Joint Ministerial Statement which stated in part,

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious global crisis.

“As part of our collective response to combat the virus, Singapore and New Zealand are committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains. We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities,”

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/21/new-zealand-works-closely-with-singapore-to-maintain-key-supply.

The Joint Ministerial Statement was expanded to seven countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore), on March 25th and is reportedly open to additional countries joining. See https://www.mti.gov.sg/-/media/MTI/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2020/03/updated-joint-ministerial-statement-25-mar.pdf

Conclusion

When a pandemic strikes, many countries have trouble maintaining open trade policies on critical materials in short supply and/or in working collaboratively to address important supply chain challenges or in taking unilateral actions to make critical supplies available more efficiently and at lower costs.

The current global response to COVID-19 presents the challenges one would expect to see – many countries imposing temporary restrictions on exports — while positive actions in the trade arena are more limited to date with some hopeful signs of a potential effort to act collectively going forward.

Time will tell whether governments handling of the trade dimension of the pandemic contributes to the equitable solution of the pandemic or exacerbates the challenges and harm happening to countries around the world.