Books

A case for refining the WTO

Surendar Singh | Updated on January 24, 2021

Title: World Trade and India Multilateralism, Progress and Policy Response Edited by: Ajitava Raychauduri, Prabir De and Suranjan Gupta Publisher: Sage Publications

A lucid account of the challenges facing the WTO and India’s engagement with the multilateral trade body

In 2020, the World Trade Organisation marked the 25th anniversary of its establishment. Undoubtedly, the WTO-led multilateral trading system has been a catalyst not only to the growth and expansion of global trade but it has significantly contributed to global prosperity, peace, and stability.

Despite its remarkable success and contribution in facilitating global trade, the institution faces ineluctable challenges in the view of the changing nature of global production, trade, and consumption of the 21st century. Developed and developing countries are quite fragmented on fundamental principles that fostered global trade.

There is a growing demand in the developed world to reform the institution in the realm of new global trade realities as well as updating the rulebook to ensure greater discipline from developing countries.

On the contrary, developing countries understand the importance of institutional reforms to restore multilateralism but they want to resolve existing issues of the Doha Round such as public stockholding before any attempt to create rules in new areas.

The authors of World Trade and India: Multilateralism, Progress and Policy Response argue in favour of resuscitating the WTO through institutional changes and refinements. They underline that India needs to adopt a pragmatic approach at international trade negotiations to shape the future rules on global trade.

This book is a collaborative project supported by Engineering Export Promotion Council (EEPC India) and Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank). There has been a thorough and detailed work on a few core areas of the WTO and India’s engagement, with a high level of academic sophistication, objectivity and policy orientation.

Tunnel vision

Most of, if not all, the authors are established scholars in the area of international trade policy. Some of them have worked with the Government of India for international trade negotiations.

This book has six sections covering a total of 17 papers, covering a range of issues including trade in goods and services, trade policy and development, anti-dumping, trade facilitation, digital trade, global value chains, TRIPS, growth, poverty, and inequality.

However, it misses critical issues of discussions ranging from a legal analysis of WTO rules, institutional reforms, non-tariff barriers, agriculture subsidies and public stockholding, which need to be studied from the perspective of the developing countries.

There are some papers which deal with a diverse range of issues of trade, development, FDI, and environment. Overall, there is an underlying assumption that there is a need to foster a liberal investment climate, ease of doing business, a better ecosystem for standards and related institutions to make India an attractive destination for trade and investment. Many of these points are well researched in the literature.

A detailed analysis of India’s trade in goods and services in the context of WTO and RTAs (Regional Trade Agreements) demonstrates that India has benefited from the liberalisation of trade in goods and services but it needs to adopt a more holistic approach and view goods and services as an integrated approach rather than a fragmented one in the world of value chains. On FTA, a chapter on RCEP not only supports India's decision but argues for a comprehensive study to understand the product value chain implications of a mega trade pact. However, issues related to investment receive little attention in the analysis.

Impending crisis

There is one paper that makes an attempt to discuss impending crisis at the WTO. It takes a review of a wide array of issues such as China-US trade war, fourth industrial revolution and trade rules.

It accentuates that the WTO must reform fast enough not only to manage challenges posed by the digital world but also to ensure global trade remains inclusive.

There is an interesting paper that makes a compelling assessment of India and East Asian countries in global value chains. It argues for a liberal trade policy regime and fostering an ecosystem to realign India’s specialisation pattern towards labour-intensive exports. There is not much evidence of addressing domestic induced distortions in value chain trade.

A few papers that focus on horizontal issues affecting India’s trade competitiveness are well-argued. India’s efforts on trade facilitation are laudable in consonance with WTO TFA (Trade Facilitation Agreement) but it lacks evidence on emerging technologies in facilitating trade.

A paper from the perspectives of stakeholders’ competing interests on the formulation of a national e-commerce policy and India’s position on e-commerce at the WTO also catches the attention of the readers. However, thoughts on the e-commerce paradigm seem to be influenced by neo-liberal assumptions.

Exhaustive treatment

In a nutshell, the book is a rich collection of academic and policy papers. It provides an exhaustive and lucid account of various challenges that WTO is confronting in the changing geography of global trade. Most importantly, it analyses multilateral trade issues from the Indian vantage. It expostulates India’s trade challenges and lays down comprehensive recommendations for Indian policymakers for future international trade negotiations.

However, it does not deal with many substantive issues related to dispute settlement, agriculture, non-tariff barriers, and their implications for the global trading regime.

Trade policymakers, trade economists, and students interested in academic and policy issues affecting global trade will find the publication useful.

The writer is Senior Deputy Director at EEPC India

Published on January 24, 2021

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