No plan B for completing Doha

Author: Mari Pangestu, Indonesian Minister of Trade

The importance of completing the Doha Development Agenda sooner rather than later goes beyond bringing gains of US$360 billion of additional trade with substantial benefits for industrialised and developing economies.

As a developing country policymaker — and I believe I speak for many other developing countries — I am greatly worried about the costs and opportunity lost of not completing Doha.

Food security

During the 2008 food crisis, imbalances between supply and demand were partly attributed to distorted agriculture prices caused by trade-distorting export subsidies and domestic-support schemes. The agriculture package in Doha will go some way to address this. In today’s situation of high commodity prices, now is the perfect time to address the removal and elimination of such trade-distorting policies. Removing these distortions can only be achieved through multilateral negotiations, not through bilateral or regional agreements.

Most importantly, the winners would be the billions of hungry and poor people all over the world; correcting the system and ensuring the future supply of food and greater price stability is very much in their interests. For example, in Indonesia a 10 per cent increase in the price of rice, without any change in income, would lead to a 1 per cent increase in poverty.

Keeping protection at bay

During the depth of the crisis, benign protectionism was the order of the day, according to the self-reporting surveillance mechanism established by the WTO at the request of G20 Leaders. This allowed the rebound of trade to become one of the costless ways for the global economy to recover. It is ironic that in the recovery, the latest report shows that there has been a slight increase in protectionism causing an estimated impact of 0.6 per cent to G20 exports.

The main increase has been due to tariff increases, automatic licenses, and other restrictions including export restrictions. Whilst this is still ‘small’, it is nevertheless double the previous period. Restoration of the confidence in the world trading system through clear signals that we are progressing on completing the Round is crucial to keeping protectionism at bay. Developing countries such as Indonesia have a great interest in this because only the multilateral trading system will provide the fair, rules-based trading system for us to face large and more developed partners on a fair and equal standing.

Bilateral and regional free trade negotiations

In the ASEAN region there are already FTAs between ASEAN and all six of its dialogue partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand), as well as numerous other bilateral FTAs. The EU has just completed negotiations with Korea, which has put pressure for the Korea-US FTA to be ratified as soon as possible. The EU has also completed negotiations with India, and is negotiating with Singapore, Malaysia, and preparing to do so with other ASEAN countries. Recently, China, Korea and Japan announced revitalisation of their FTA initiative. Furthermore we have the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative between eight members of APEC.

It is not the bilateral and regional free trade agreements which are problematic per se; it is negotiating them in the absence of a robust WTO system — a system which is seen as meeting the needs of the current and future trade-linked issues. Bilateral and regional agreements can only work toward complementing the multilateral trading system when they are ‘WTO-plus’, not ‘WTO-instead’.

The potential dampening effect on unilateral reforms

The political economy of openness in trade policy and institutional reform has always functioned better within the framework of international commitments. Multilateral rules impose an important caveat on what countries can or cannot do. In a country like Indonesia this has worked to our advantage in the way we frame our reforms, and in fact has functioned in the past to put bad policies to rest.

The way forward: No Plan B

Despite G20 Leaders’ commitments, and all the good intentions and intensive work in Geneva that came after the push given by trade ministers during their informal meeting at Davos in January 2011, it proved impossible to arrive at a draft text by the end-of-April milestone. There remains ‘unbridgeable gaps’ in a number of main negotiating groups, namely non-agriculture market access.

Given this situation, trade ministers met first during the APEC Ministers of Trade Meeting in Big Sky Montana, and then on the fringes of the OECD meeting in Paris. Fortunately all have agreed that we all remain committed to completing Doha as a single undertaking. However, there was a sense of realism as to the timing and pathways to achieve this desirable outcome in a timely way.

From an Indonesian perspective, there is no ‘Plan B’. We do not support a ‘Doha Lite’, and we remain committed to a comprehensive, ambitious, and balanced package building on what we have achieved to date.

After almost six years of negotiations since the key Hong Kong WTO Ministerial, I believe we are more than 50 per cent, or some would say 80 per cent, of the way done. A realistic way forward is to identify the sequence of steps that would take us to the final outcome; this is necessary to avoid the costs and lost-opportunities I outlined above.

Identifying stepping stones to a final Doha Round conclusion

There are areas within the negotiations that could be seen as steps toward the final package. In identifying the areas where we could find convergence, a number of priorities stand out.

  • First and foremost are areas of negotiations that will contribute and deliver to development objectives, such as the Least Developed Countries package and/or an effective aid-for-trade, and facilitation package; this is, after all, a Development Round.
  • Second, areas where there would be clear benefits for development and the private sector in facilitating and ensuring the benefits of trade are greater; we need stakeholders to be cheerleading the way forward.
  • Third there could be areas where we would be able to address the food-security challenge.

One could also foresee that, within each current area of negotiations, there could be items which could be wrapped up without disturbing the overall balance of elements in that particular area. It is important that we do not go into ‘new’ negotiations in identifying which areas.

Looking forward

Beyond talking about Doha, we must ensure continued confidence in and implementation of the rules-based, open trading system.

  • This would mean the commitments of G20 Leaders and others on refraining from protectionism going beyond words; the good intentions need to be strengthened with commitments and actions.
  • It also has implications for how we undertake bilateral and regional agreements; these should be done in a way that is not an alternative to, and does not detract from the multilateral trading system. We should pursue regionalism in a way which is going to contribute to and complement the system.

In conclusion, we should not underestimate the costs of not doing all this. We will need to draw upon the strength of our individual and collective political commitment. We need to call on the ability of some major economies to look beyond pure national interests, and to look at the impact and costs on the global system and economy. And we need to remember that there are many countries and billions of people — many of which are impoverished — who are waiting for the Doha deliverables.

Mari Pangestu is Minister of Trade for the Republic of Indonesia. An earlier version of this article was published here by VoxEU.