The Tenth China Round Table on WTO Accessions, held virtually on 18-20 January, celebrated 10 years of the China Programme, with participants reflecting on its impact on the accession of least-developed countries (LDCs) and discussing the future direction of this initiative. The event also provided an opportunity for trade experts to present a study reviewing the results of accession for the nine countries that have joined the organization as LDCs since 1995 — Nepal, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Samoa, Vanuatu, Lao PDR, Yemen, Liberia and Afghanistan.
The event started with a high-level opening session on the future of LDC accessions and the key achievements of the China’s Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) and Accessions Programme (the “China Programme”) since its establishment in July 2011. This session was followed by a round table where LDC ministers/chief negotiators from Comoros, Timor-Leste, Yemen, Lao PDR and Cambodia discussed their respective accession and post-accession experiences as well as the challenges faced by LDCs in the accession process.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala thanked China for its longstanding commitment to the Programme — the only one of its kind dedicated to accessions. “Accessions and LDCs are two critical tests of the multilateral trading system’s ability to bring marginalized countries and people into the mainstream of global trade. On both fronts, the China Programme has brought tangible benefits and visibility,” she said.
DG Okonjo-Iweala highlighted key activities carried out under the China Programme over the last 10 years, such as providing a platform for accession negotiators to share experiences and lessons, contributing to the WTO’s internship programmes and supporting the more effective participation of LDCs in the multilateral trading system.
DG Okonjo-Iweala noted that eight of the 23 ongoing WTO accessions are LDCs, namely Bhutan, Comoros, Ethiopia, Sao Tomé and Principe, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Timor-Leste. “Despite the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, some of these processes are making good progress. In fact, over the last 24 months, all but one of the active Working Parties on accessions have been for LDCs. One of the most advanced accessions today is an LDC, namely Comoros.”
Other LDC accessions will demand more concerted efforts, domestically and internationally, backed by capacity support, to use the accession process to drive economic reforms, and promote peace and stability, she said. “This is particularly relevant for the 11 fragile and conflict-affected countries in the current accession list and many of them are LDCs.”
DG Okonjo-Iweala also commended the g7+ WTO Accessions Group of fragile and conflict-affected LDCs for bringing peace — the fundamental reason for the creation of the multilateral trading system — back into the trade debate. “I believe that the Group’s efforts in bringing the special challenges faced by fragile and conflict-affected states to the attention of the WTO membership will contribute to a more inclusive multilateral trading system,” she said.
In remarks to the high-level opening session, Commerce Minister of China, Wang Wentao, said his country has been sharing the benefits of its own development with the LDCs and will remain committed to South-South cooperation within the framework of the multilateral trading system. China will continue to support capacity building and enhance cooperation with the WTO Secretariat for a greater role of the China Programme in helping developing members, LDCs in particular, accede to the WTO and integrate into the global economy.
“LDCs are the most vulnerable countries in the global trading system. … We know too well the complexity and difficulty of the process and recognize the importance of both integrating into the multilateral trading system and speeding opening-up and development. That is why over the past 20 years China has spared no effort in helping LDCs integrate into the multilateral trading system, promote productivity, and enhance export competitiveness,” Minister Wang said.
Ali Djadda Kampard, Minister of Trade and Industry of Chad and coordinator of the WTO LDC Group, also stressed the vulnerability of LDCs in terms of their shares of world trade, their endowments of basic infrastructure and, above all, their capacity to respond to internal and external shocks. This has been made all the more difficult by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on LDC economies. “Recent statistics on the pandemic are disturbing and show the degree of vulnerability of LDCs,” he said.
Minister Kampard stressed that all acceding LDCs aspire to join the WTO, with the objective of being able to integrate into the global economy and make the most of international trade to promote their development. “However, WTO accession is not a mere formality. It involves concessions, financial resources and a host of internal reforms that are sometimes difficult for an LDC to undertake on its own, given the many challenges involved. Hence, the importance of the China Accessions Roundtable for LDCs,” he added.
Liberian Commerce Minister Mawine G. Diggs thanked China for “its dedicated and consistent support provided to LDCs, especially acceding LDCs, through the China Programme” and noted that her country — one of the latest acceding WTO members (2016) — benefited from the support provided under the programme. “For us, WTO membership meant a path to peace and stability and it has worked. But of course, there is no doubt that Liberia still faces many challenges at multiple fronts, including to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout,” she said.
On behalf of the g7+ WTO Accessions Group, co-coordinated by Liberia and Timor-Leste, Minister Diggs recalled that ahead of the postponed 12th Ministerial Conference the Group had submitted a proposal on the establishment of an action-oriented work programme on Trade for Peace in the WTO. “We believe that this work programme can help deepen our understanding of the relationship between trade and peace and how the integration into the multilateral trading system can contribute to peace and stability, especially in fragile and conflict-affected states,” added Minister Diggs.
The high-level opening session was moderated by WTO Deputy Director-General Xiangchen Zhang, who said that the admission of new WTO members, particularly nine LDCs to date, has been an important achievement for the WTO, bringing benefits to the newcomers. “Nobody appreciates better the value of WTO membership than acceding governments,” he said.
In session 2, experts examined the impacts of WTO accession on the nine WTO members that have joined the organization as LDCs under Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement. Former WTO Chief Economist Patrick Low and former Deputy Minister of Commerce and Industry of Afghanistan Mozammil Shinwari presented the results of a study reviewing the impact of accession for those nine members. The study also provides a practical set of recommendations on “pre-accession, negotiations and post-accession” for acceding LDCs, based on the lessons learned from the nine LDC accessions.The last session focused on the achievements and opportunities of the China Programme and the targeted support provided to LDCs across its five main pillars: the China WTO Accessions Internship Programme; the Annual China Round Tables on WTO Accessions; increasing participation of LDCs in WTO meetings; South-South Dialogue on LDCs and development; and LDCs’ Trade Policy Review follow-up workshops. In this session, the panelists discussed the ways in which the Programme can better serve its targeted beneficiaries in light of the current global economic realities.
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