DEPUTY DIRECTOR-GENERAL ALAN WM. WOLFF

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Welcome to the China Round Table on WTO Accessions.

My name is Alan Wolff, a Deputy Director-General of the WTO, with responsibility for accessions. I will be your moderator for this opening session of the Round Table, which is celebrating 25 years of WTO accessions.

We are livestreaming today from the WTO Headquarters in Geneva. This is the 9th  edition of the China Round Table. While this event is usually hosted by WTO member governments, last year courtesy of the Russian Federation in Moscow, we are now taking it online due to the pandemic.

Since 2012, the China Round Table has provided an annual platform for dialogue on WTO accessions. This initiative is made possible with the support of the government of China under the China LDCs' and Accessions Programme. I am pleased to note that this program - through which the government of China contributes to a number of WTO activities - was renewed last week for next year.

2020 is an anniversary year for the WTO. The Organization was founded on 1 January 1995 to serve the multilateral trade agreements negotiated by its 128 original Members. 25 years later, the Organization accounts for 164 Members, through a remarkable series of 36 accessions.

Much has been said about the challenges facing the WTO 25 years after its birth. To name but a few, the Appellate Body has ceased functioning; the negotiating function has had limited successes; and there are problems in the timeliness and completeness of notifications required under many WTO agreements. This presents only the negatives. The Committees of the WTO and the Secretariat are highly active. Fisheries subsidies negotiations are proceeding toward a conclusion, and the joint statement initiatives hold much promise.         

Looking back on the last quarter-century, one of the greatest achievements of this Organization has been the expansion of WTO Membership, and the continued stream of applications from countries seeking to join the WTO. Of the 59 governments that have applied to accede to the WTO under the procedures of Article XII of the Marrakesh Agreement since 1 January 1995, 36 have successfully completed the process and 23 are currently in the accession process.

The story of WTO accessions has been a story of transformation. The accession process typically requires structural reforms across many areas of the acceding country's economy. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1991, international trade played a powerful role in transforming the economies of the newly independent states and in deepening their relationships with the rest of the world. WTO membership was used by them - and other centrally planned economies, such as China and Viet Nam - as a vehicle to modernize. Least-developed countries, starting with the accessions of Cambodia and Nepal in 2004 and most recently Afghanistan and Liberia in 2016 - a total of nine of them - have used the process of WTO accession to set their economies on a sustainable path of economic growth, transforming the image we had of them. In several cases(1), this has been accompanied by graduation from the LDC status.

Despite their similar paths of economic reforms, accession experiences have differed widely. While some joined the WTO after a short period of negotiations – for instance, Kyrgyz Republic in 1998 and Georgia in 2000, after 3 to 4 years of negotiations, others, such as Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Seychelles, spent nearly 20 years in the process and only joined the Organization more recently. Generally, the longer the accession negotiation took, the greater and the deeper the level of obligations the applicant has undertaken.  

The admission of new Members has been a genuine success story. No one better appreciates the value of WTO membership than the members of the negotiating teams of acceding governments. In reviewing both completed and ongoing accessions, it is clear that WTO accessions have served as a catalyst and vehicle for domestic reforms. The path to WTO membership is paved by efforts aimed at poverty reduction, institution-building, economic integration, regional integration, economic diversification, sustainable development, peace-building and more. This unique exercise not only demands an understanding of the rights, obligations and disciplines associated with WTO membership, but it is the result of consensus-building among domestic stakeholders. It requires a 360-degree grasp of one's own economic landscape. Ultimately, WTO accessions create an enabling environment for economic resilience and sustainable growth.

In the same way that WTO accessions have anchored domestic transformations, there is no doubt that accessions have also benefitted the global trading system. By welcoming new Members through Article XII, the Organization has extended the coverage of international trade conducted under its rules to over 98%. This has promoted the integration of global supply chains and in so doing has lowered trading costs for all Members of the Organization.

Beyond this, Article XII Members have also made substantive systemic contributions.  Every accession causes existing Members to consider how best to uphold the values of the WTO. As a result, we have seen accessions repeatedly deepen and update existing disciplines. Collectively, Article XII Members have incorporated more than 1500 specific commitments into the WTO rule book. These additional commitments, coupled with guarantees for deeper access to their domestic markets for goods and services, have made the WTO stronger and more up-to-date.

To give you an example, in the area of transparency alone, over 250 specific commitments have been adopted. Many Article XII Members have made extensive notifications, including in areas where original Members have underperformed or where multilateral disciplines do not yet exist (such as the notification of privatization programmes). In key WTO disciplines - such as the ones governing agriculture domestic support and state-owned enterprises - Article XII Members have often accepted tighter legal obligations than the WTO norm. In several areas, accession negotiations have also achieved concrete results years before the emergence of multilateral trade disciplines - trade facilitation, tariff rate quota, and export subsidies are a case in point.

Accessions are a force for change - driving re-examinations of the WTO rule book, steering away from complacency, and asking original Members to level the playing field up to the benchmark set by Article XII Members. This is especially crucial in 2020, when the pandemic has tested the rules-based system. Acceding governments are a source of hope for the future of the multilateral trading system.

The year 2020 has underlined the fact that no country's well-being and prosperity is secure on its own, whether it is a large nation or is small. This is no doubt one reason why in these uncertain and challenging times many acceding governments have continued their active engagement.

The work on WTO accessions is not yet done. 23 ongoing accessions remain. Curaçao began its accession process this year. Also during this year, Turkmenistan, as an observer, began its exploratory process. Both cases have systemic and historic significance, demonstrating the agility of the multilateral trading system seen through the lens of the accessions process.(2)

I applaud the acceding governments for their dedication and invite them to continue their accession negotiations and to follow actively all areas of WTO work. In these times of challenge, further opportunities are on offer -- to enhance transparency, participate in joint initiatives, co-sponsor proposals and deliver statements on trade in the COVID era, and join in the work toward further achievements by MC12 – the list goes on.  Stand firm in your commitment to the value of WTO membership, be advocates for your citizens to improve their futures through international trade, continue to participate in shaping the future of the multilateral trading system.

Today's celebration presents a good opportunity to thank past and present accessions negotiators and Working Party Chairpersons for years of hard work. Your work supports the integration of acceding governments and the interests of the Organization's 164 Members. It is a pleasure to gather with you today, although virtually, and to hear and learn from your stories, lessons learned, and vision for the future of WTO accessions.

I would also like to offer my congratulations to China and Saudi Arabia on the celebration of their, respective, 19th and 15th accession anniversaries today. We are also celebrating the accession anniversaries of Croatia and Kazakhstan, which marked respectively their 20th and 5th membership anniversaries on November 30th.

I warmly welcome the Permanent Representatives of the four WTO Article XII Members who have joined us today around this virtual Round Table to share this commemorative moment with us and to lead the discussion in this opening Session -- Ambassador AITZHANOVA of Kazakhstan, Ambassador BATISTIĆ KOS of Croatia, Ambassador ALMOQBEL of Saudi Arabia, and Ambassador ZHANG of China. It is a pleasure to host a panel of such rich talent and diversity.

With us today is the former Director of the WTO's Accessions Division, Mr Arif HUSSAIN, who led the Division from its inception in 1995 until 2008, concluding 25 accessions during his time as Director. Thank you all for joining us today.

I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contributions made by Mr. Chiedu OSAKWE who served as Director of the Division between 2009 and 2016, to expand WTO membership. His passing last year was very untimely. He is missed by the accession community, including many of his friends present at this China Round Table, which he initiated in partnership with China.   

It is my pleasure to open this morning's session by sharing a video messages from Mr WANG Shouwen, Vice Minister of Commerce of China and from Mr Bakhyt SULTANOV, Minister of Trade and Integration of Kazakhstan.

The objective of this morning's session is to take stock of key accession achievements and speak to the structural relevance of WTO accessions. I am pleased to welcome our five panellists. I will invite each speaker to make a five-minute intervention, after which I will facilitate a brief discussion following your statements.

First, I am pleased to invite Her Excellency Ms. Zhanar AITZHANOVA to share her insights. Ambassador AITZHANOVA played an instrumental role in Kazakhstan's accession as then-Minister of Economic Integration. She served as Kazakhstan's Chief Negotiator and Special Representative to WTO Accession Negotiations for a decade. Ambassador AITZHANOVA continues to be an active member of the accession community, sharing Kazakhstan's experience as one of the most recent additions to the WTO in 2015.

Our second speaker is Ambassador Vesna BATISTIĆ KOS, Permanent Representative of Croatia to the WTO. Croatia joined the WTO in 2000 as our 140th Member. Around the time of Croatia's accession, Ambassador BATISTIĆ KOS joined the Permanent Mission of Croatia, later returning to Geneva in 2015 after her term as Assistant Minister of the Directorate General for Multilateral Affairs and Global Issues, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

Our third panellist is Ambassador Saqer Abdullah ALMOQBEL of Saudi Arabia. 2020 is not only Saudi Arabia's 15th accession anniversary, but also a year that marks Saudi Arabia's leadership as Chair of the G20, bringing the turbulent world together during the Covid-19 pandemic, and beginning the process of WTO reform through the Riyadh Initiative. Ambassador ALMOQBEL arrived in Geneva this past October as Saudi Arabia's Permanent Representative to the WTO, having served earlier as Deputy Permanent Representative of Saudi Arabia’s Mission to the WTO and a Counsellor in charge of legal affairs between 2011 and 2017.

The systemic significance of China's accession to the WTO in 2001 cannot be overstated and vice versa, arguably no other international institution has played a more significant role in accompanying China's economic emergence than the WTO.  Ambassador ZHANG Xiangchen, Permanent Representative of China to the WTO, took up his current post in Geneva in 2017, prior to which he served as China's Deputy International Trade Representative (at the Vice Minister’s level) of the Ministry of Commerce from 2015-2017. Ambassador Zhang was also an active member of the team which negotiated China's WTO accession, which was concluded in 2001. Ambassador ZHANG.

Mr. Arif HUSSAIN, is former Director of the Accessions Division from 1995-2008. Before taking charge of the newly established Division in 1995, he served as Assistant Director-General and Head of the Textiles and Market Access Division between 1993 and 1995; and Chef de Cabinet to GATT Director-General Arthur Dunkel. Before joining the GATT 1984, he worked for the Government of India and participated as a trade negotiator during the Tokyo Round. It is a pleasure to have Mr. HUSSAIN here with us today, as he reflects on his extensive experience in accessions, and indeed his decades of association with the multilateral trading system.

To wrap up this session, we have a montage of video messages collected from the representatives of Art. XII Members, as they reflect on 25 years of WTO accessions.

Thank you.

Notes

  1. These included: Cabo Verde in 2008, Samoa in 2014, Vanuatu on 4 December 2020. back to text
  2. Curacao's accession is the first case in which a separate customs territory of an existing Member (the Kingdom of the Netherlands) seeks an independent membership. Curaçao is one of four constituent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with Aruba and Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, (collectively known as the Netherlands Antilles until 2010), and the Netherlands in the EU. Turkmenistan is the last of the 15 former Soviet republics to seek the establishment of formal relationship with the WTO following the resolution of the Soviet Union. back to text

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