“India is not a country that can be just walked over. We stood our ground, and we took a principled stand as well as practical stand.”
For the first time in the over two-decade old history of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India was not blamed for the failure of a meeting of the global body’s apex decision-making body as witnessed in the Argentine capital, a perception — according to commerce minister Suresh Prabhu — that was important for the country.
The WTO’s Ministerial Conference had on earlier occasions ended without a Ministerial Declaration in Seattle (1999), Cancun (2003) and Geneva (in 2009 and partly in 2011) owing to a lack of consensus among member nations from the rich and the poor world on issues relating to market-opening commitments in farm and industrial goods. India was blamed for these as well as even for the failure of some of the WTO’s ‘mini-ministerials’ (meetings by a group of some important members of the WTO from the developing and developed world), most notably in June 2007 in Potsdam and July 2008 in Geneva on agriculture issues.
Speaking to a select group of reporters, including this writer from The Hindu, in Buenos Aires a day after the deadlocked meeting, Mr. Prabhu, who led the Indian negotiating team, said, “I was told by quite a few people who have attended almost all ministerials that for the first time, India is not blamed. This is very important. India has always been the whipping boy, and people need whipping boys,” he said.
Talking about India’s efforts to protect food security right and centrality of development in multilateral trade negotiations as well as its views against the introduction of new issues like e-commerce, investment facilitation and norms relating to small firms into the ongoing Doha Round talks that has a ‘development’ agenda without resolving outstanding issues such as food sovereignity, the minister further said, “India is not a country that can be just walked over. We stood our ground, and we took a principled stand as well as practical stand.”
The position of the U.S. to block the demands of over 100 developing countries, including India and China, for implementation of their food security programmes without onerous conditions, was widely seen as one of the main reasons for the failure of the talks. The U.S. had also questioned the centrality of development in WTO talks, another reason for the talks ending without a Ministerial Declaration.
Mr. Prabhu said by standing firm on food security issues, India “gained the goodwill of the rest of the whole world… India has not only protected its national interests, but also not harmed anybody’s interests. That is very important. We promote our interests, but not at the cost or expense of other’s interests.”
The minister said an important mission for India was to ensure that the WTO lives on even after the Buenos Aires meeting, “because the WTO represents and in a way manifests the very important elements that should be there in global trade. That is democratic functioning, as well as a transparent and rule-based system.” He added, “I can now say very happily that the WTO is not only alive, but kicking. That is a big gain we have achieved for the global community as a whole for global good.”
He said multilateral trade negotiations are much more difficult than bilateral trade talks as every country wants to get something but doesn’t want to give anything in return, and also due to the WTO norm that all major decisions will have to be taken by the consent of all members.
He said while there were little expectations from the Buenos Aires meeting on outcomes in substantive issues, following hardening of position on all the issues under consideration, there was a difficulty in taking the talks forward. He said the target of the developed world was not really India but China, as was evident from their (the US, European union and Japan) statements on overcapacity creation, giving subsidies to state-owned enterprises, ensuring that market is not properly handled, and currency manipulation.
On food security, though India had the protection of a perpetual peace clause, India wanted a permanent solution (to the issue of public stock holding for food security purposes) that was an improvement over the peace clause, Mr. Prabhu said. “We fought for it, and not only for us, but also for those countries that are more vulnerable than India when it comes to implementation of food security programmes, because we were in a stronger position to fight for the cause,” he said.
The other main issue for India was to aggressively pursue the issue that the developed world should reduce their subsidy. “This was is a legacy issue, coming from the Uruguay Round (of WTO negotiations). So we thought Uruguay being the neighbor of Argentina, something could happen here. But Uruguay Round issue could not be settled in Argentina. That doesn’t matter. May be it will be settled somewhere in Asia or in Africa when we have the next Ministerial,” he said.