Trade: LDCs mustn't be burdened with onerous WTO accession commitments

China has said that it steadfastly supports the least-developed countries (LDCs) during their accession to the World Trade Organization as well as their integration into the global trading system, suggesting that the LDCs are facing several problems in their bid to join the rules-based, member-driven, inter-governmental organization.

At a virtual "tenth China Round Table on WTO accessions" held at the WTO on 18-20 January highlighting the key achievements of "China's Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Accessions Programme" (the China Programme), China elaborated on the specific problems and difficulties being encountered by the LDCs during their WTO accession process.

It expressed grave concern that not one LDC has acceded to the WTO during the past five years, adding that they need huge economic support during the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic.

It is an open secret that during their accession process, the LDCs had to accept burdensome and onerous conditions imposed by the developed countries such as the United States, the European Union, and others, said people familiar with the development.

Speaking at the virtual roundtable, the WTO director-general Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala commended China for its continued commitment to helping the LDCs during their accession process.

She said that "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."

The key activities of the "China Programme" include the provision of a platform for accession negotiators to share their experiences and lessons, contributing to the WTO's internship programs and supporting the more effective participation of the LDCs in the multilateral trading system, she highlighted.

She noted that eight of the 23 ongoing WTO accessions are LDCs, namely, Bhutan, Comoros, Ethiopia, Sao Tome 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," said the DG.


According to the DG, 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.

"This is particularly relevant for the 11 fragile and conflict-affected countries in the current accession list and many of them are LDCs," she said.

While China's assistance to the LDCs has been significant in terms of providing market access and in assisting in their domestic industrialization programs, even though they entailed certain economic and financial costs, the US and other developed countries continue to adopt a hard-line stance, both on market access and at the WTO, said an LDC member, who asked not to be quoted.


Even though the Round Table was specifically convened to discuss China's assistance for LDC accessions to the WTO, the DG went on to shower praise on 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.

It only goes to prove her rather "biased" support for the G7 countries in the face of mounting problems caused by some of these countries, particularly the US, in the conflict-ridden zones like Afghanistan, Yemen, and even in Iraq, said an analyst, who asked not to be quoted.

Interestingly, the DG remained silent on the magnitude of the difficulties encountered by the LDCs during their WTO accession process.

When Yemen acceded to the WTO on 26 June 2014, Yemen's trade minister Dr Sadaldeen Talib narrated the range of excruciating commitments that the country had undertaken based on "maverick and unreasonable demands".

"They (the developed countries) said our tariff lines have to be brought down to zero," while "a team of facilitators advised us to agree to 5% average tariffs on a range of products."

He said that unlike some developing countries, "we don't have any chips in our pockets while they (the developed countries) have all the chips."

In response to a question from this writer at a press conference on 26 June 2014, the Yemeni Trade Minister said there are lots of lessons for the LDCs, suggesting that the accession process will be very painful and that Yemen is under pressure to undertake many reforms (see

Almost every LDC since Cambodia, which was the first LDC to accede at the WTO's third ministerial conference in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, has been subjected to grueling and painful negotiating commitments.

Ironically, the underlying rationale seems to be an attempt to force the LDCs to accept up-front WTO commitments that are much more than the current commitments of the developed countries, and then later maintain that the LDCs are exempt from the prospective commitments.

Even now, when the LDCs and other countries are engulfed in a worsening COVID-19 pandemic due to the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the US and the EU have made "false promises" of helping them with vaccines, and the reality on the ground has exposed their continued "hypocritical" policies and opposition to the temporary TRIPS waiver for fighting the pandemic across countries, several studies and commentators have argued.


Speaking at the China roundtable, the Commerce Minister of China, Wang Wentao, said that 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, he added.

Mr Wentao said: "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-up their 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."

China's trade envoy to the WTO, Ambassador Li Chenggang, said: "China experienced 15 years of painful negotiations before acceding to the WTO."

He said "after its accession, China struggled to clean up more than 2,000 laws, regulations and departmental rules at the central level, and over 190,000 local policies and regulations at sub-national levels to meet its commitments."

China said it fully understands the significance of acceding to the WTO for developing countries, particularly the LDCs, and the difficulties faced by them in the accession and post-accession period.

China stated that it will provide help, within its capability, to developing countries and LDCs to facilitate their accession process and integration into the WTO.

It gave an account of the funds it had provided so far for LDCs to participate in WTO activities.

China said that it wants to "keep hearing the LDCs' demands," adding that it "always believes that if we want to build a community with a shared future for mankind, no one should be left behind. By receiving and analyzing their demands, we hope China Program could provide more targeted help which I think is the key to the China Program's success in the past 10 years."

It argued that joint efforts are needed on addressing the difficulties and problems faced by the LDCs in their accessions, adding that "it is worrisome that there has been no LDC finishing accession negotiation since 2016."

In recent years, the LDCs' challenges on economic development have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the accession process even more stagnant, it said.

China said that it wants other "WTO members to voluntarily join us in helping developing countries, particularly LDCs on targeted capacity-building in various areas," adding that "the commitments expected from LDCs should be commensurate to their capacities and development level."


At the roundtable, Chad's trade and industry minister and the coordinator of the WTO LDC Group, Ali Djadda Kampard, emphasized "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."

He said "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, according to his statement posted on the WTO website.

Commenting on WTO accession, Chad's trade minister said "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."

In a similar vein, Liberia's 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, coordinated by Liberia and Timor-Leste, the Liberian minister said 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.

In short, if the WTO is to have a "human face", it must not implement the proverbial "Shylockian" process of imposing an unreasonable burden and onerous commitments on the LDCs during their WTO accession process, said several people, who asked not to be quoted.

By D. Ravi Kanth.

Source: South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #9498 Monday 24 January 2022.