SPEECHES — DG ROBERTO AZEVÊDO

Remarks by DG Azevêdo

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Ministers,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address you today.

First, let me thank Viet Nam for inviting me to speak today – and for the very warm hospitality. It's a pleasure to be back in Hanoi.

I have been asked to brief you on the state of play at the WTO, and on the preparations for our 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, in December this year. And there is a lot to update you on.

Much has happened at the WTO since we last met.

In January, we saw the entry into force of the amendment to the TRIPS Agreement, which helps developing countries access generic medicines at more affordable prices.

And in February, the Trade Facilitation Agreement entered into force. This is the WTO's first multilateral agreement – and I believe you are all quite familiar with its benefits.

These two measures came into force because we received ratifications from more than two thirds of the WTO membership. This is important in itself. It shows members' commitment to the multilateral trading system – to agreeing reforms and seeing them through to implementation.

APEC members played a huge role in all of this. So I would like to thank you all for your support. This progress was possible because of you.

On a personal note, I would also like to thank you all for your support in reappointing me for a second term as WTO Director-General at the end of February.

I believe that the WTO is much stronger today than it was four years ago. But there are still many challenges before us. The WTO, as I see it, is still work in progress - but good progress!

I look forward to working with you to continue strengthening this essential pillar of global economic governance.

Trade has long proven to be an engine for growth and development – including here in the Asia-Pacific.

The region has seen phenomenal growth over the last 40 years. Your engagement and participation in the rules-based global trading system has been an important part of this.

And it has been mutually beneficial. The rise of the Asia-Pacific economies has helped to spur growth around the world, as well as acting as a force for stability and security. This is positive for everyone.

Nevertheless, while trade has proved effective as an engine for economic growth, that engine may be in need of repair.

Our latest data, published just a couple of weeks ago, show that in 2016 world trade grew at 1.3%. This was the slowest pace since the financial crisis.

And despite signs that the figures may pick up this year, it seems quite likely that 2017 will be the sixth consecutive year with trade growth below 3%. This has been seen only once before in the 70 year history of the multilateral trading system.

In addition, in many countries we are clearly seeing a growing backlash against globalization in significant segments of the population.

In this scenario, trade is often identified as a cause of disruptions in the labour market. These concerns are of course legitimate and deserve to be responded to. And while trade can in fact play a role here, it is actually just one of a range of factors at play, others including technology and innovation. Actually, independent studies have found that new technologies and higher productivity is around four times more disruptive in labour markets than trade.   

Obviously, like trade, innovation and new technologies are fundamental for economic growth and social development. So we must embrace and foster these forces, but we must also be ready to respond to their transformational challenges.

Identifying the correct policy responses will mean keeping these different factors in perspective. And each country will have its own formula - this is not an issue where a single recipe would work for all.  

This debate also reinforces the critical importance of global economic cooperation, of the multilateral trading system, and of the WTO as well.

APEC has always been a big supporter of the WTO and the multilateral trading system. APEC economies have been at the forefront of the debate at the WTO in recent years. And I hope that we can continue to strengthen this partnership.

In my view there can be little doubt about the systemic importance of a rules-based framework for global trade. We saw this in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. The WTO was tested, and it passed.

We did not see a significant rise in protectionism. The share of world imports covered by import-restrictive measures implemented since October 2008 is just 5%. Of course it could be even lower – but it shows that the WTO did its job.

It shows that while the system is not perfect, it is essential.

And it shows that we must keep reforming the system, and making sure it is able to respond effectively to the challenges of today's world.

For many years up until 2013, the WTO was seen as a place where you could not do business. This is not the case anymore.

In less than 3 years, we delivered the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the expansion of the Information Technology Agreement, the agreement to abolish agricultural export subsidies, and a range of other important decisions, including on agriculture, food security and a range of issues of interest to the LDCs.

These deals were achieved because of a willingness among members to do things differently. And they proved that the WTO can deliver.

There is more pragmatism, realism and flexibility in our debates.

The Buenos Aires Ministerial Conference is just a few months away. That will be another important opportunity for progress.

Let me outline the current state of play in our preparations for that meeting.

Members have been very active this year. They have been exploring different areas and in some of them they are beginning to move towards higher levels of specificity.

The Doha negotiating groups have been continuing their work, and some have been particularly active, particularly on services, and on rules – specifically regarding fisheries subsidies.

Activity is picking up in the other areas too.

We have seen a number of new papers and ideas being put forward – covering issues such as domestic support in agriculture, services facilitation, investment facilitation, and trade remedies. 

I am also informed that other papers and ideas are in the pipeline in areas such as special and differential treatment for developing countries and steps to help small and medium-sized enterprises join trade flows.

In addition, groups of members have organized seminars or informal dialogues to further discussions, including on e-commerce and SMEs. And more are being prepared. I welcome the energy that these informal sessions are injecting into our work.

Importantly, there is a genuine openness in the approach undertaken by the proponents. All members have been invited and encouraged to actively participate. 

My hope therefore is that we can sustain this prevailing momentum and positive engagement.

Of course this should include steps on development and in support of LDCs – as well as steps in those areas where action is mandated at the Buenos Aires Conference, such as public stockholding.

Clearly time is short. In the coming weeks I hope to see our preparations for Buenos Aires advancing with a much greater sense of clarity and purpose.

But of course, at the same time, we also have to be realistic. So far, most of the areas under discussion are still in the early stages. We still need to see much more specificity and collective progress.

The Chairs of the negotiating groups and I will do our part to facilitate convergence wherever possible. Proponents have a particular responsibility here to build momentum behind their ideas. Continued political engagement will be vital.

Before I conclude, let me say a word about bilateral and regional initiatives.

Progress at the WTO works alongside progress elsewhere. Support for the multilateral trading system does not need to come at the expense of these other initiatives. 

The dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region illustrate how cooperation at the regional level can have a significant impact – including for the wider multilateral trading system.

APEC itself is an example of this. And there are many other regional and bilateral initiatives being pursued in the region that can help complement and act as building blocks for the global system. Bilateral and regional initiatives are swifter, for example, in the process of reducing import duties and improving market access.

However, even if all regional agreements could be completed tomorrow, we would still need an effective and well-functioning WTO.

Almost none of the global trade challenges we face today would be easier to solve outside of the multilateral system.

So cooperation at the global level will remain essential.

In all of this, APEC has a major role to play. So I urge you to stay engaged.

This will be vital as we look to Buenos Aires and beyond, and as we seek to strengthen and improve the multilateral trading system.

I hope these comments are helpful and that they'll encourage a fruitful discussion among all of you today.

Thank you.

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