Representatives of the 164 WTO member countries are in Buenos Aires for their biennial meeting. The odds of a breakthrough look grim against the backdrop of Donald Trump's 'America First' policy and discord over China.
The World Trade Organization's biennial conference opened on Sunday — the first since US President Donald Trump came to office. The Buenos Aires meeting, which lasts until Wednesday, will be a major challenge for participants because of America's general hostility to multilateral trade accords. Trump has pummeled the body relentlessly over the past year, describing it as a "disaster."
The Trump administration has also made the WTO a preferred target of its "America First" policy, threatening to pull the US out of the trade organization it says is hampering its ability to compete.
In opening remarks Argentina's President Mauricio Macri said that "WTO problems get fixed with more WTO, not with less WTO."
Yet Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is insisting on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada.
Washington has been blamed for blocking appointments of judges to the WTO's dispute settlement system, saying it was ineffective and insisting on a more aggressive approach to defending its interests.
The European Union, on the other hand, comes to the conference with a robust spirit of multilateralism. The EU and Japan announced Friday that they have finalized a major trade agreement, while an updated trade agreement with Mexico is expected to be confirmed this week.
Beijing, meantime, wants to be seen by the WTO as a "market economy," but the Europeans and the United States — for once on the same wavelength on trade issues — oppose this. Any such recognition would entitle China to preferential economic treatment under WTO rules.
China is currently classed as a non-market economy. That status allows the US and others to use a special recourse to levy anti-dumping duties against China if they determine that it is selling its goods — notably steel and aluminum — at unfairly low prices abroad.
The threat of protectionism
In all around 4,000 government trade representatives are taking part in the 11th WTO ministerial conference, the last of which took place in Nairobi, Kenya in 2015.
There are still differences of opinion as to which issues need to be ironed out during the conference, WTO Secretary General Roberto
Acevedo said on Sunday.
The threat of protectionism still looms large, he said, as he appealed to all countries taking part to show flexibility. But conference chair Susana Malcorra said there were positive signs despite fears over the policies being pursued in Washington.
"We begin in Buenos Aires with the conviction that the system is being generally supported," she told international news agencies ahead of the meeting.
E-commerce on the agenda
Meanwhile, the German government is confident that the WTO will continue to work as usual despite the policies of the new US government."There is no sign that the USA wants to leave the WTO," Germany's economics and energy minister Brigitte Zypries told dpa before the conference began.
The WTO's role is becoming more important in light of growing protectionism worldwide, she noted, adding: "Free and fair trade based on common rules must not be up for negotiation."
Germany is seeking more agricultural subsidies and more transparency in the services and electronics industries. Working groups will also meet to discuss fishing and sustainable development matters.
aos/tr (dpa, AFP)