Think Tank (3/2023)
(L-R) Dr Said El Hachimi, Senior Counsellor, Head Parliamentary & IGOs partnerships and Outreach, World Trade Organization; Mr Ng Boon Heong, Chief Executive Officer, Temasek Foundation; Ms Jessica Tan, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore; Mr Barry Desker, Distinguished Fellow, RSIS.
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RSIS-WTO Parliamentarian Workshop on International Trade 2023
15 May 2023

With support from Temasek Foundation, RSIS and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) co-organised the 13th RSIS-WTO Parliamentarian Workshop on International Trade from 15 to 17 May 2023 at the Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel Singapore.

During the workshop, the speakers lauded the success of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC-12) that included breakthroughs in fisheries subsidies. Negotiations on fisheries subsidies have been ongoing for the past two decades. The agreement on limiting illegal fishing activities can contribute towards effective ocean protection. Fisheries subsidies were further discussed in Session 4 whereby speakers urged member countries to strengthen support towards the WTO’s initiatives in facilitating the pace of subsequent negotiations.

Session 3 focused on the WTO’s pressing challenges. The intensifying geopolitical tensions between major powers resulting in reshoring efforts have eroded the multilateral trading system. Another challenge concerns with digital economy governance. The panellists argued that the lack of global digital trade rules is pushing countries towards negotiation and signing regional trade deals. This phenomenon may sideline the WTO and its principles of non-discrimination.

Session 5 explored avenues for WTO reforms to ensure its relevance in the 21st century.  The legal doctrine of “Stare Decisis,” which honours binding historical precedents and their applications for similar subsequent cases, was proposed as a remedy for trade dispute settlements at the WTO. The speakers also placed a priority on strengthening the Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Agreement (MPIA) as an alternative way to resolve trade conflicts, and stressed the significance of ensuring equitable reforms for the developing members.

Digitalisation has elevated cross-border trade to an unprecedented scale. The speakers in Session 6 highlighted some pressing challenges such as cybersecurity and intellectual property issues that arise from rapid digitalisation. They encouraged lawmakers to make or amend rules to ease cross-border digital trade flows and improve digital literacy skills to reap the benefits of the digital economy. The panellists also explored how the WTO can further bridge the nexus between trade and digitalisation.

Multiple challenges, namely the trade war among major powers, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing war in Ukraine have disrupted trade connectivity. They have caused delays and shortages in the circulation of goods and services. Session 7 discussed how to build a resilient global supply chain that could withstand future crises and crisis-related pressures. To achieve this, governments can foster greater synergies between transport hubs and increase states’ support for micro, small, medium enterprises (MSMEs), so that the latter can contribute more meaningfully within the global supply chains.

The private sector’s perspectives were also shared during the workshop. In Session 8, the speakers voiced their concerns about the domestic hurdles that international businesses are facing. They emphasised the need for governments to closely consult with MSMEs to further shape digital regulations to minimise business-related transaction costs as well as make the benefits of the digital economy more inclusive. To broaden business opportunities, governments are encouraged to enhance sustainability regulations to optimise productivity and reduce energy consumption costs.

Session 9 conducted an extensive debate on the regional trade agreements (RTAs) versus the WTO. The panellists warned of the mutually exclusive view on this debate. Instead, they emphasised a positive symbiosis between these two frameworks in advancing international trade and preparing countries for the fast-changing world economy.

The last session focused on how small and developing countries enhance their leadership at the WTO. The panellists praised the roles played by small states in broadening trade cooperation at the organisation. They also explored new ways to measure the multi-dimensional vulnerabilities of states to better understand and address the challenges facing small and developing nations in a more nuanced way.

This workshop shed valuable light on the long-standing issues of international trade and the WTO. It also facilitated the exchange of ideas and sharing of experiences among the parliamentarians. This contributed to their better understanding of how to further strengthen and uphold the multilateral rules-based system to better serve their constituents.

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