US trade chief confident about progress of WTO reform talks

Successful week of negotiations would mean 'meaningful steps forward' on reform, Katherine Tai says

Katherine Tai, US trade representative, said discussions at the Abu Dhabi conference about reforming the WTO's dispute settlement system are constructive. Bloomberg
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The US Trade Representative said on the third day of talks in Abu Dhabi that she is “very confident” about the progress of negotiations with her counterparts from other nations on reforms to improve the World Trade Organisation.

Discussions at the WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference on Wednesday about the tough issue of reforms to the trade body's dispute settlement system are constructive and the atmosphere is collaborative, Katherine Tai said.

“The dynamic here is constructive, it's positive, it's sober because there's more work to do, but it is something that the WTO membership can point to and be really proud of,” Ms Tai told reporters at a press briefing.

“People are looking forward to the future and thinking about 'what kind of WTO do we want?' And so I feel actually very confident that however the documents come out on Thursday or Friday, we are already succeeding.”

For the US, a successful week of the trade talks would entail “meaningful steps forward in reforming the WTO”, Ms Tai said. This could be reflected in the decisions and declarations that emerge from the MC13 meetings and in the way member countries engage with one another during negotiations.

“We have a lot to be proud of coming into MC13. I think we have the wind in our backs. We have a foundation of accomplishments to build on,” she said, pointing to the delivery of a package of deals in MC12 in Geneva in 2022.

However, there is still a lot of work to do.

“There is another set of issues that are going to be harder and that are going to take longer to address, including what to do with the appeals mechanism and how to have a mechanism for review that doesn't repeat the problems of the appellate body that came before it,” Ms Tai said.

Global trade ministers have gathered in the UAE capital this week to tackle several key deals, including strengthening the effectiveness of the WTO after years of criticism that it has failed to keep pace with economic change.

The WTO is seeking to push a package of reforms to improve its trade dispute settlement system and overcome a four-year impasse on the appointment of new judges.

Its court has not functioned since the US opposed a new judge appointment, leaving disputes worth billions of dollars unresolved.

As the US blocked appointments to the WTO’s appellate body, the second-tier group to which any party in a dispute case can lodge an appeal, the process of dispute settlement has been gutted.

Asked about WTO member countries' concerns that the US is hobbling the WTO by blocking the appellate body, Ms Tai said there is “vibrancy” in the MC13 meetings and “nothing is standing still”.

She said that if the appellate body were operating as it had previously as an “extremely activist, extremely powerful” entity where member countries could secure new rules through litigation rather than bilateral negotiations, there would be no need for the reform package currently being negotiated.

“The fact that we're in the process of reforming the dispute-settlement system has unleashed a sense that we have more responsibility as WTO members and is actually energising the membership to think big and to think about 'what is the WTO that we want' … to improve this institution and make it fit for the challenges of the 21st century,” she said.

“The WTO is not at a standstill, in fact I see more energy in this institution today than I have in a long time.”

Updated: February 28, 2024, 3:54 PM