DPG Policy Brief

13th WTO Ministerial Conference Outcomes

Date: March 20, 2024
At a time of growing disruptions in the global economy, this policy brief examines the highlights and outcomes of the 13th Ministerial Conference of the WTO, and what these imply for India.

The author begins by identifying the issues that figured prominently among the wish lists of the major participating countries. While there were some commonalities among them, such as those relating to dispute settlement reform, tackling fisheries subsidies leading to overfishing and overcapacity, and continuation of the moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, there were also several divergent interests at play spanning subjects ranging from agriculture to pushing plurilaterals (also termed joint statement initiatives or JSIs) into the WTO framework.

Outcomes of the Ministerial were, however, modest.

While there was almost universal support for resolving the present impasse on the dispute settlement mechanism, the Ministerial could only reaffirm that the reform process should be completed this year. The US is the only WTO member standing in the way.

On fisheries subsidies, India’s demand for adequate flexibilities for its livelihood  fisheries sector could not be addressed. Self-serving compromises struck between China and the EU on distant water fishing beyond the EEZ rendered the draft even more imbalanced, something that India could not accept. India will need to garner support for greater balance and calibration in any eventual agreement.

The moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions was extended once again, but only till March 2026 or the next Ministerial, whichever is earlier. Furthermore, the request made by more than 120 parties to the recent JSI Agreement on Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) that it be onboarded into the WTO as a plurilateral agreement was also not agreed to. India, along with a few other member countries, had opposed both these moves, but relented on the limited extension on the customs duty issue. Both these issues will, however, come up again at the next Ministerial. Considering the large measure of support they enjoy, the author calls for a reassessment of its position by India.

At the same time, the author suggests that the WTO should carefully address the broader issue of onboarding of JSIs into the WTO as plurilateral agreements. He cautions against bringing every issue that has a trade-related element into a rule based organisation like the WTO.

On the issue of a permanent solution for public stockholding for food security which is a priority for India, no progress could once again be made at the Ministerial, despite this having been taken up by India as part of a coalition of G-33 countries. The author suggests that India will need to mobilise diplomatic leverage and reach strategic understandings with key countries, wherever possible, to secure its interests.

In conclusion, the author recommends a rethink on India’s overall approach to trade diplomacy by limiting its ‘fight to the finish’ approach to a minimum set of issues, and even on these building broader coalitions of support. 

To read this Policy Brief Vol. IX, Issue 10, please click “13th WTO Ministerial Conference Outcomes”.