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WTO Summit | Through leadership and dissent, India attains centre stage at MC 12

India was a major component of the talks on almost all tricky issues during the four-day WTO ministerial conference, which had to be extended by two days to bridge differences among member-nations.

June 23, 2022 / 12:09 PM IST

Whether they backed India or opposed it, other member-states couldn’t ignore India at the just-concluded ministerial conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In a summit deadlocked until nearly the end on almost all key issues, the spotlight was on India throughout on account of its strong positions on a global patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, fisheries subsidies and agricultural issues, including bans on food exports and public stockholding of foodgrains.

The four-day global summit was extended by two days after differences arose among member-nations on key issues, leading to intense negotiations. India was a major component of the talks on almost all issues either in its opposition or support.

Having the backing of a large number of members from the global south meant that the ball had been in India's court on issues such as the pandemic response and agriculture where it had extensive consultations with other key players in the WTO ecosystem, including the United States, European Union and United Kingdom.

Photos of Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal huddling with WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, MC 12 Chair Timur Suleimenov of Kazakhstan, and other leaders as part of the marathon meetings have also liberally circulated online.

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"Many of them show the Minister standing in front of the WTO DG and functionaries, while ministers from other nations lean in. That was exactly the way it was over there," a person familiar with the negotiations said.

Goyal was also the first major leader at the conference to announce that the talks would be a success, which he did on Thursday evening.

"As a result, the global press has dedicated much more time to analyzing India's concerns and arguments this year. India was also in focus since the issues at hand were crucial for the country and the government had understood that it had little room for compromise given how the rules had stacked up against us in the past," a senior official said.

As its economy has grown, India's voice at the WTO has gained credence over the past 15 years. However, until the 2017 summit (MC11) in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, India had often been bunched with other nations, whether it was Brazil or South Africa or SouthEast Asian economies like Indonesia.

MC12 saw a clear break from that tradition, a senior trade negotiator said.

The country's steadfast position on most issues, however, invited the charge of India being “difficult” by a large number of other nations.

Obstinate blocker

Since Day 1 of the conference, developed nations had called out India for not being open to tweaking its stance. On a stage where talks often hinge on optics, and the shifts in public opinion back home that follow, this has resulted in heavy criticism of the country by Western media. India was named as the country most responsible for single-handedly holding up the negotiations.

Reuters reported delegates as saying India had a history of blocking multilateral trade deals and appeared far from ready to compromise at MC12, under the headline WTO makes final push for deals, with eyes on defiant India.

Bloomberg ran multiple stories stressing that India's hard position risked an impasse. Even on the last day, US-based Politico magazine wrote: “India takes WTO hostage as key talks drag into overtime.”

Goyal responded to the charge. “A few countries attempted to create a false campaign, initially on Sunday and Monday, that India is obstinate due to which no progress is being made," he said in a press conference in Geneva after the talks.

"The real situation has emerged before us all, the issues raised by India, which the Prime Minister had asked us to focus upon; now the whole world acknowledges that was the correct agenda and ultimately India played a vital role in arriving at all solutions,” he said.

Championing development issues

At MC12, India also positioned itself as the champion of developing nations and the Least Developed Nations (LDCs). As successive ministerial conferences of the WTO have become increasingly polarized, the gap in the positions of developed economies and the rest of the world has widened.

This has been buttressed by India taking a dominating position in introducing proposals that bat for the developing world or keeping the agenda firmly focussed on development issues.

WTO member nations have now also agreed on loosening the intellectual property rights regime for vaccines. More than 21 months back, India and South Africa had suggested temporary suspension of certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Suspending parts of the TRIPS agreement would allow countries to overcome legal challenges posed by patents to ensure the timely provisioning of affordable vaccines.

As IP rights can create barriers to timely access to lifesaving health products, the TRIPS Agreement includes safeguards known as 'flexibilities' so states can amend their laws and take certain measures to address public health emergencies. Ths includes issuing of compulsory licenses that would allow a company to produce a lifesaving drug without following IP rules.

Rather than waive intellectual property protections, the final outcome provides some clarifications to current 'flexibilities' and a narrow exception to an export restriction on Covid-19 vaccines for the duration of five years.

Also, dogged insistence by rich nations led by Switzerland and the United Kingdom to keep the deal limited to just vaccines and not therapeutics and technology only drove African, Pacific and South American nations towards India.

Demands met somewhat

While the narrative may have been different in the event of a washout at MC12, the fact that 162 nations managed to hammer out the first deal in seven years has led to the government declaring the summit a win for India.

Goyal announced that India had achieved spectacular success at MC12, saying India was 100% satisfied with the outcome.

"The Minister's confidence in being able to sell the outcome to citizens back home comes from the fact that India was successful in ensuring the livelihood of its farmers and fishermen," a foreign trade watcher based in Geneva said.

Goyal has reminded the press that the agreement on fisheries, which claps down on government subsidies for fisheries, is currently limited to illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing, something that is not present in India.

"The discussion on extending this to all government subsidies will take place going forward. Currently, there are no restrictions on government subsidies," Goyal stressed.

Instead, the WTO has taken cognizance of India's demand that nations that have consistently supported illegal deep- sea fishing be regulated.
Subhayan Chakraborty has been regularly reporting on international trade, diplomacy and foreign policy, for the past 7 years. He has also extensively covered evolving industry issues and government policy. He was earlier with the Business Standard newspaper.
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