Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Dec17/32)
15 December 2017
Third World Network
North and its allies in South opt for plurilaterals on E-com and
Published in SUNS #8597 dated 15 December 2017
Buenos Aires, 14 Dec (D. Ravi Kanth) - The major developed countries
and their allies in the developing world resorted to a plurilateral
initiative on electronic commerce on Wednesday (13 December) at the
Buenos Aires ministerial meeting after failing to secure multilateral
consensus for establishing a working party on electronic commerce,
several trade ministers told SUNS.
Argentina's minister Ms Susana Malcorra, who chaired the ministerial
summit, welcomed the plurilateral initiative for what she called 21st
Even the United States - which blocked the proposed outcomes on the
permanent solution for public stockholding programs for food security
and other issues - immediately embraced the plurilateral initiative
Signed by 70 countries, the sponsors decided to "initiate exploratory
work" that will eventually pave the way for negotiations.
The decision by the 70 countries came a day after the proponents failed
to secure consensus on their proposal for establishing a Working Party/Working
Group to accelerate work on e-commerce eventually for launching negotiations
at the next ministerial meeting in 2019.
The US Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer said the
US "is pleased to partner with 70 members to initiate exploratory
work on negotiations on electronic commerce issues in the WTO."
"Initiatives like this among like-minded countries offer a positive
way forward for the WTO in future," said Ambassador Lighthizer
in a statement.
The initiative is not being called plurilateral even though it is
among the coalition of willing countries because one member is sensitive
to the use of terms like plurilateral and multilateral and therefore
it is being called an initiative of like-minded countries, said one
of the co-sponsors.
The three countries who issued a statement on behalf of more than
60 countries said they want to advance "electronic commerce work
in the WTO in order to better harness these opportunities."
The United States and the European Union are among the sponsors of
the e-commerce plurilateral initiative that was announced by Japan,
Australia, and Singapore.
Other members include Albania, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil,
Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala,
Hong Kong (China), Peru, and many other countries.
The 70 countries who circulated several proposals for establishing
a working group to accelerate work on e-commerce with the aim of launching
negotiations at the WTO said they "share the particular opportunities
and challenges faced by developing countries, especially LDCs, as
well as micro, small and medium enterprises, in relation to electronic
"We also recognize the important role of the WTO in promoting
open, transparent, non-discriminatory and predictable regulatory environments
in facilitating electronic commerce."
Many members of the group had already circulated several proposals
on electronic commerce in the run-up to the Buenos Aires ministerial
meeting, calling for a new mandate to commence work on e-commerce-related
issues with the eventual aim of launching negotiations at the WTO.
But those proposals failed to garner support beyond those who signed
onto it during a heads of delegations meeting convened by the facilitator
for e-commerce at Buenos Aires on Monday.
Therefore, the sponsors said "we, as group, will initiate exploratory
work together toward future WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects
of electronic commerce."
"Participation will be open to all WTO members" regardless
of their current proposals. The proponents said their "initiative
will be undertaken without prejudice to existing WTO agreements and
"Modern trade will increasingly be by e-commerce," said
Australia's trade minister Steven Clobo, while Japan's trade minister
Hiroshige Seko said "the world is more interconnected than ever"
in which the WTO has an important role to play.
"E-commerce presents developing Members and LDCs an opportunity
to leapfrog, overcome traditional market barriers, and allow for more
inclusive participation in global trade."
Major developing countries such as China, India, South Africa, and
Indonesia among others stayed away from the initiative.
There is still no clarity whether the initiative can be discussed
within the WTO when the e-commerce work program based on the 1998
decision is the basis for work within the WTO.
"The exploratory work cannot continue within the WTO," said
a developing country trade envoy.
WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo said the initiative on e-commerce
provided new "dynamism" to the organization even though
it failed to make progress on the mandated issues.
In another plurilateral initiative, trade ministers from many developed
and several developing countries issued a "joint ministerial
statement" for commencing work on disciplines for micro, small,
and medium enterprises (MSMEs) so as to arrive at "horizontal
and non-discriminatory solutions" that will benefit MSMEs in
In a joint statement, the proponents for MSME disciplines led by Chile
launched an informal work program for MSMEs at the WTO.
The work program includes "a comprehensive and strategic discussion
on MSMEs in the WTO, as a contribution at the multilateral level to
addressing obstacles related to foreign trade operations that represent
a significant burden for MSMEs interested in participating in international
[While proponents of this "new initiative" on e-commerce
and MSMEs, at MC11 and elsewhere, claimed that it will help and promote
Micro-, Small- and Medium-enterprises (MSMEs), especially in the developing
countries, organisations of MSMEs across the globe, not only in developing
countries, but in some European countries too, issued declarations
and circulated documents at MC11, denouncing these efforts, and pointed
out that these initiatives and rules would advantage the three or
four US silicon valley technology giants, and secure them free access
to data of individuals across the world, and it would disadvantage
and make even budding enterprises in developing countries uncompetitive.
The MSME proponents maintained that the informal group is open to
"all members" for accomplishing a multilateral outcome "aimed
at establishing a formal work program for MSMEs at the next ministerial
The informal dialogue will focus on the following issues:
* To provide enhanced access to information for MSMEs;
* Ways to promote a more predictable regulatory environment for MSMEs;
* Reduction of trade costs, including areas such as trade facilitation;
* Shipping and logistics;
* Procedures and requirements related to [rules of] origin;
* Better access to trade finance for MSMEs;
* Technical assistance.
The informal working group on MSMEs at the WTO will continue to periodically
share with the membership information on its work and discussions
at the heads of delegations, General Council, and the ministerial
The US, however, opted to stay out of the informal working group on
MSMEs because of China's presence in the group, said a proponent who
asked not to be identified.
In conclusion, the Buenos Aires ministerial meeting has achieved its
goal of undermining the multilateral trade liberalization while paving
the way for plurilateral trade liberalization of the coalition of
the willing so as to deny the promised developmental benefits of the
Doha work program to developing and poorest countries.