India takes WTO hosting as key talks drag into overtime – POLITICO

GENEVA — Progress at key world trade negotiations is being held up by India, forcing a crucial international conference into overtime.

The World Trade Organization on Wednesday gave itself one more day to reach, but diplomats are pessimistic about whether New Delhi will stop holding up consensus on everything from agreements harmful fishing subsidies to food security and a COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver.

“It’s not yet clear though, to be honest, that there is a deal to be had,” someone close to the talks said on Wednesday afternoon, adding that “there’s some pretty destructive tactics going on, primarily from [India].”

The WTO’s ministerial conference in Geneva, its first big decision-making meeting in five years, is now tentatively scheduled to end by mid-afternoon on Thursday. But that could also change, WTO spokesperson Dan Pruzin said.

Many countries are furious at India’s blocking tactics, which threaten to derail all of the deals that were potentially within reach at the meeting.

“India is dancing a very smart and strategic dance” at this conference, a Geneva trade diplomat said, acting as “the WTO’s fussy child.” But “we shouldn’t let them get away with their bullshit,” the diplomat added.

One of the biggest blows would be a failure to reach an agreement to curb subsidies that have contributed to the depletion of ocean fish stocks. Those talks have been going on for more than 20 years, with countries inching toward a final deal in recent months.

However, India wants developing countries to have 25 years to phase out subsidies and has made other demands that cross other countries’ red lines.

New Delhi chiefly wants members to permanently exempt its public food stockholding programs from WTO rules. India Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal on Sunday said the WTO should resolve the public stockholding issue before addressing any new areas, a statement that has loomed large over all the negotiations this week.

India, along with Indonesia, is threatening to block renewal of a 24-year-old moratorium that prevents countries from imposing tariffs on digital goods and services, as well as routine business data transmissions that cross borders.

That would be a major setback for the WTO’s role in promoting free and open trade, although countries would still have to decide individually whether to impose the duties or not.

The most promising area for an agreement would authorize developing countries to waive intellectual property protections of COVID-19 vaccines to allow domestic manufacturers to make generic versions of the life-saving meds. But it seems talks have taken a turn for the worse.

Back to square one

“We thought we were pretty close until a couple of other delegations came in to say, ‘let’s go back to square one,’” the person close to the talks said about the vaccine talks that happened Tuesday night. “So, it remains to be seen whether we can deliver this.”

The WTO could also approve a broader package to address some of the trade concerns that arose during the pandemic, like export restrictions. However, India and others are insisting that it include an automatic trigger to address future pandemics — an unacceptable demand for members like the EU, US, UK and Switzerland.

Delhi being in the limelight shields other countries from taking the blame for the talks stalling. China and the US for instance still have major issues to resolve as to whether China should take advantage, or not, of its developing country status in the patent waiver and fisheries talks.

Beijing lets “the wrecking be done by the Indians where wrecking needs to be done and come in to defend some quite specific interests they have,” the person close to the talks said.

India’s tough stance in Geneva raises questions about its participation in US President Joe Biden’s signature trade initiative, the proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.

Brussels might also be shuddering at the idea of ​​kickstarting bilateral trade talks with India on Friday, when Goyal is expected in the European capital.

“Are they [India] really going to pull the whole edifice down?” wondered the person close to the talks.

POLITICO contacted the Indian delegation with a request for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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