At the WTO General Council meeting of May 5-6, 2021, a paper on Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) that criticizes a plurilateral approach to negotiations was on the agenda. The paper was originally introduced by India and South Africa, with Namibia later added as a co-sponsor. The minutes for the meeting have now been circulated, and in the discussion of this issue, China voiced its support for JSIs.
JSIs are a way to conduct WTO negotiations on a plurilateral basis, with the participation of only a subset of WTO Members. This approach can be useful when it is difficult to get all Members to agree. The WTO's e-commerce talks are an example of where they have been used.
The paper by India, South Africa, and Namibia was critical of JSIs. Former WTO Secretariat official Peter Ungphakorn has described the paper's position as follows: "[India and South Africa] stopped short of saying they would block inserting new plurilateral agreements into the WTO’s trade system, but their opposition is clear. They argued that plurilateral agreements contradict the fundamental principles of the WTO: multilateralism (all members involved), decisions by consensus (nobody objects), and the rules on amending WTO agreements."
At the March General Council meeting, when this issue was first discussed, China did not weigh in at all. As Ungphakorn put it at the time: "Perhaps the most intriguing reaction was China’s. It did not speak at all. Beijing likes to position itself in the alliance of developing countries that includes India, but it is active in all the plurilaterals — as are large numbers of developing countries."
But at the May meeting, China expressed a clear view in favor of JSIs, as follows:
8.72. The representative of China said that as a creative approach to negotiations, JSIs had brought new energy into the multilateral trading system, with increasing participation from Members. They were also essential to making the rules of international trade responsive to the digital transformation of the global economy. Since their very beginning, JSIs had been strictly conducted in line with the WTO's principles of openness and transparency. China was of the view that JSI negotiations should take into account the diversity of the Membership and their level of development, providing Members more comfort as to how and when to participate in JSIs.
8.73. China noted that the ultimate goal of the work at the WTO was to establish universally applicable multilateral rules, rather than to be taken as a substitute for multilateralism. To this end, they saw a need to explore ways of better integrating JSI agreements into the WTO framework. In this regard, the paper helped Members to reflect upon those issues. China believed that as long as the outcomes of JSIs benefitted Members as well as the organization, a solution would be found regarding their legal status.
While the statement tries to be diplomatic and acknowledge some of the concerns expressed in the paper, it comes out clearly on the side of using JSIs to achieve negotiating progress at the WTO.
When asked about the significance of China's statement, Ungphakorn noted that "China faces a dilemma here," as it "[n]ormally ... doesn’t want to break ranks with the likes of India and South Africa," which often play the role of leaders on developing country issues. At the same time, though, "China is an active participant in the plurilaterals and a demandeur in one (investment facilitation)." As a result, while it was silent in the first General Council meeting to discuss the paper in March 2021, "[i]t felt forced to speak at the next meeting in May, defending these plurilaterals, but bending over backwards to recognise the diverse levels of development of WTO members and stressing the need to fit the plurilaterals into the multilateral framework." He also noted that China reverted to silence at the July meeting (for which the minutes have not yet been released).
The future of specific JSI initiatives is uncertain, but having China actively supporting the concept is important if they are to be successful.