Tiger in the room at Abu Dhabi

Economics Times, February 16, 2024

By Pradeep S Mehta and Bipul Chattopadhyay

India’s foreign policy achievements are evident across various regions, underscoring its diplomatic prowess. As such, India should spearhead efforts for a fruitful conclusion of the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi, starting February 26. Failing to do so might diminish the significance of its diplomatic endeavours.

India’s foreign policy successes are visible from Jeddah and Medina to Tehran and Abu Dhabi. This is why India should take the lead for a successful outcome of the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, UAE, starting February 26. Otherwise, India may not realise the actual value of its diplomatic initiatives.

The last time an MC was held in the Arab world was in 2001 in Doha, Qatar. In the aftermath of 9/11, the global leadership came together to send a strong message to the world that they were together for everybody’s benefit. Abu Dhabi is aspiring for such a mark this time, particularly after successfully hosting COP28 in Dubai last year.
The pandemic, continuing war in Ukraine, Israel-Hamas conflict and violence wrought by non-state actors in the Red Sea have made the world as vulnerable as, if not more than, it was a couple of decades back. That calls for resolve similar to the 2001 Doha MC4. The Abu Dhabi ministerial declaration should be a milestone for the world to be a better place to live in.

True, outcomes of the Doha ministerial couldn’t be taken forward by members to provide better benefits for all. That’s realpolitik, and the glass will always remain half-full outside a utopian world. Yet, there have been wins:

Waiving of patent rights at Doha in 2001 over specific medicines to combat HIV/Aids.
India defending and achieving interim success for its right to subsidise farmers producing basic staples like rice and wheat at Bali in 2013. Trade facilitation agreement that was arrived upon at Bali.
The underlying story is that engagement brings positive results; disengagement leads to a dead end with no option other than whining. In the case of WTO, it’s not just one country but all members. This is why other WTO members are urging India – and the US – to engage more at WTO to combat multiple global challenges together.
This engagement must be forward-looking:

The US should drop its my-way-or-the-highway approach in its demand to overhaul WTO’s dispute settlement system.

India should refrain from demanding tariffs on cross-border digital trade. Nobody benefits from trade-restrictive measures.

New Delhi should engage in negotiations of new issues such as investment facilitation and electronic commerce.

India and the world have changed hugely since the time freer export of capital was opposed at WTO by India and other developing countries in the mid-1990s. Contrary to popular belief, more engagement will help India become more competitive, leading to more growth and newer job opportunities. Moreover, they will help push forward trade causes, such as freer movement of temporary workers through trade visas.

India should be a tiger in the room, not an elephant. It is at the cusp of leapfrogging to the big table. It also must reduce its economic distance from other big economies.

It will be relatively easy for India to achieve this vision under a predictable multilateral trade system under WTO. That will depend on successful outcomes of MC13 and their balanced implementation. India must take this opportunity to remind the world again of the true meaning of vasudhaiva kutumbakam.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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