US move may lead to global trade war, says WTO chief Roberto Azevedo

Roberto Azevedo, Director-General, WTO
World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Roberto Azevedo has warned of a potential global trade war as other nations could retaliate against recent decisions by the US to unilaterally raise tariffs and repeatedly target the multilateral rules-based trade regime.

India also secured a promise of further talks on agricultural stockpiling for food security purposes after developed nations, which had been against the idea, reportedly softened their stance.

Addressing reporters on Tuesday after the conclusion of the two-day WTO mini-ministerial called by India, Azevedo pointed out that participating nations had unanimously protested against the actions of the Donald Trump administration, which raised tariffs on steel and aluminium imports by up to 25 per cent for select nations, including India and China.

"People say the WTO is the sheriff of international trade. We are not. The WTO does not, as an institution, take a stance. But I am very concerned because of these measures. This has a very real possibility for escalation because of the possibility of responses from other partners with trade restrictive measures," Azevedo said.

Among issues important to India, apart from the decision to continue talks on agriculture-related issues, the meet has not come out with any decisions. “We never expected any outcome, nor were we working for it. The idea was to create a meeting of minds,” Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu said. Azevedo also hinted that more nations were now interested in talking about issues that were part of the Doha development round of discussions, which included agricultural topics.

Questions over the role of the organisation also multiplied after the US repeatedly said the WTO did not help in the growth of world trade. "They see some conversations in the WTO they want to have, and that they would like to see happening. However, they think the world has changed a lot and the WTO needs to have some kinds of reforms. We do not know, we are beginning to have those kinds of conversations," Azevedo said referring to the US.

However, the recent tussle between member-nations over the dispute settlement system at the multilateral body was also addressed. 

The dispute settlement system was compromised after the US blocked the appointment of appellate body members. The lack of judges on the body has become a serious concern, since it is the principal body tasked with arbitration between nations on trade disputes.

However, the recent case lodged by the US against India at the WTO, which could have repercussions for India's export promotion schemes, was not discussed at the meet. Last week, the US challenged India’s export promotion schemes at the WTO. India has promised to fight back the charge that it was misusing export subsidies, and was set to reply within 30 days, according to WTO rules.

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