During a Wednesday meeting in Washington on WTO reform efforts, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko “confirmed their support for the timely initiation of WTO negotiations on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce that seek to achieve a high standard agreement with the participation of as many WTO members as possible.”
The nod of support came almost at the very end of the joint statement, which didn’t include any further details on the vision for a potential e-commerce agreement but highlighted U.S., EU and Japanese efforts to reform the WTO.
The WTO in September 1998 officially started a work program on e-commerce. The body released its latest publication on the topic in November, highlighting the potential impact of blockchain in international trade.
Lighthizer, Malmstrom and Seko instructed their staff to finalize “trilateral text-based work” on industrial subsidies by spring to engage other key WTO members after that, as appropriate, the statement says.
The ministers also agreed to cooperate on the issue of forced technology transfer, including the development of new rules, the relationship between forced tech transfer and export controls, investment review for national security purposes and enforcement and to take further stock of the cooperation by spring, the statement says.
The officials agreed to intensify engagement with other trading partners to advance a joint transparency and notification proposal their governments submitted to the WTO Goods Council in November.
Lighthizer, Malmstrom and Seko “also reiterated their call on advanced WTO members claiming developing country status to undertake full commitments in ongoing and future WTO negotiations,” the joint statement says.
Speaking in Washington this week, Malmstrom several times called out China’s business practices and on Thursday said her meeting with Seko and Lighthizer focused on addressing unfair trade practices, mainly by China.
“We need to update the rules facing this century’s realities, particularly unfair trade transfers from China, like forced technology transfer and state subsidies,” Malmstrom said during an event at the Atlantic Council on Thursday. “That has to be addressed in the WTO, and this is what we are doing, for instance, in the trilateral work with the U.S. and Japan.”
She said WTO reform should aim to find a way to get China more engaged, as members have hoped for changes in China’s business policies that haven’t taken place.
On another WTO issue, Malmstrom said the WTO Appellate Body must be preserved, mentioning that the EU has made concrete proposals to improve it.
The U.S. in December rejected the latest EU proposal, which was submitted jointly with China and India.
The Trump administration has expressed repeated concerns that some Appellate Body rulings exceed the panel’s authority, infringing on national sovereignty.
Malmstrom said the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, later this month could be a good venue to hold talks with the U.S. regarding the Appellate Body.
She called on the U.S. to lift its block on appointments of new members to the Appellate Body.
Three of seven slots on the body are currently occupied, the minimum number of members required for the panel to issue rulings, and one of those panelists is set to leave the Appellate Body by the end of 2019.
“Can we deal with conflicts at an earlier stage so they don’t have to land in formal dispute settlement?” Malmstrom asked. “That, we probably can do, and here we’re working, again, with the U.S. and Japan. We’re just starting to see what can be done to reform” the process.
The U.S.-EU-Japan joint statement plan to further engage on WTO reform efforts during the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Trade and the Digital Economy in Tsukuba, Japan, in June.