US trade chief looks for incremental reform at WTO meeting

By Thomson Reuters Feb 14, 2024 | 6:15 PM

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Wednesday that she is taking a “pragmatic” approach to the World Trade Organization’s next ministerial meeting, aiming for incremental but meaningful improvements that sustain the trade body’s reform momentum.

Tai told reporters ahead of the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi that she did not anticipate a massive reform agreement that addressed all of the institution’s shortcomings at once.

“We’re looking for success,” she said of the Feb. 26-29 conference. “The Athena coming out of the brain of MC13, it’s not going to happen. So why would we set ourselves up for that?”

Instead, she said that during conversations with MC13’s host, United Arab Emirates Trade Minister Thani Al Zeyoudi, a prominent word was “pragmatic. And frankly, I think that, in the context of the global economy right now, that pragmatism is what is going to save us.”

The WTO faces a large number of difficult issues among its 166 members, including reforming its hobbled dispute settlement system, cutting fishing subsidies, resolving disagreements over agriculture subsidies and deciding whether to extend a 25-year-old ban on duties on electronic commerce data transmissions.

Ministers from the WTO’s 166 member states are due to meet at a time of growing trade restrictions driven by national security interests and heightened geopolitical tensions, including from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and U.S. curbs on exports of high-technology items to China.

WTO ministers in 2022 agreed the body’s first reforms in years, clinching deals to ban fishery subsidies for over-fished stocks and creating a partial intellectual property waiver to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

Asked during a briefing what would make a successful MC13, Tai responded: “It would be an MC13 that meaningfully builds on this reform program and an MC13 where people come away and they feel hopeful and determined, and smarter, about preparing for MC14.”

“It is incremental,” Tai added.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Stephen Coates)