Not all WTO members are equal

By Mei Xinyu
Shanghai Daily, August 11, 2011

These conflicts of interest amongst WTO members, old and new, can be partially attributed to the rivalry between the developed and developing world. The 23 countries that formed the GATT were all developed countries and have dominated the evolution of world trade rules ever since. To preserve their predominance and preempt emerging economies from catching up, they've conspired to curtail new members' rights by all means.

Even if the parties involved in trade frictions are both from the developing world, they don't necessarily share common interests. Rather, some may be antagonistic contenders for export market share and foreign capital inflows.

A prerequisite Mexico demanded as quid pro quo for its acceptance of China's entry into the WTO was that China must permit Mexico to levy special tariffs on its goods until 2008. This is a "diktat" that even the EU cannot tolerate. In early October 2002, Karl Falkenberg, trade representative of the European Commission, called for Mexico to remove the punitive duties on Chinese products and bring its measures into conformity with its WTO obligations.

Under the Western democratic system, elected politicians are poised to find foreign scapegoats for their own countries' woes.

Furthermore, the unilateralism of Western economic giants like the US has intensified trade rivalries. GATT's Articles 22 and 23 mandate that trade spats must be settled through bilateral dialogue or multilateral mediation.

Yet the US, a key drafter of the GATT charter, reneged on that very principle with the first dispute it filed with the entity. At the second GATT assembly, held on September 9, 1948, it refused to engage Cuba in any negotiation over the latter's textile import ban. It arrogantly demanded that Cuban authorities unconditionally relax the ban and even sought the assembly's authorization to retaliate against a "protectionist" Cuba.

Fortunately, the assembly rejected the US request to go for some payback and founded a workshop to end the row. The workshop model, led by trade experts, has since become the default mechanism of resolving trade wars.

For emerging economies marginalized in setting global trade rules and desperate for external markets, a few "unequal treaties" are temporarily acceptable insofar as they don't compromise general equality and mutual benefits. After all, tolerating retail curbs on rights is better than being left out of the WTO and reaping no gains at all. Nevertheless, no countries, great powers in particular, can permanently live with harsh terms shoved down their throats.

To remedy the injustice, new WTO members ought to actively participate in multilateral, regional and bilateral trade talks and establish more equitable rules to supplant the "unequal treaties."

The author is a senior researcher under the Ministry of Commerce. The views are his own. His email: Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao translated his article from the Chinese.


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