India must join WTO members in e-commerce talks
India will not be able to stop the main trading nations from moving forward with an e-commerce agenda at the WTO. Even if one supported New Delhi’s position, it would be better positioned to obstruct if it was sitting at the table rather than sulking on the pavementeditorials Updated: Jan 31, 2019 17:53 IST
In opposing discussions on e-commerce rules at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India continues a quixotic trade policy that further marginalises it in the international political economy. New Delhi’s opposition has accomplished little. As many as 76 WTO members have decided to separately begin a process that will frame rules governing cross-border e-commerce. Since this group includes the four largest trading nations — the United States, China, the European Union and Japan — as well as nearly half the WTO’s membership, the breakaway faction is well on its way to becoming the mainstream.
India wants a 1998 agenda to be the basis of any conversation about e-commerce. The agenda is from an age when the name Amazon was still associated with a South American river. New Delhi’s stance is no surprise. It continues to have relatively restrictive policies on foreign multibrand retail. It has now added a convoluted and protectionist rulebook for its domestic e-commerce market. It would be par for the course for India to try and obstruct any attempted moves towards an international free market for e-commerce. India’s posture will, in time, prove to be the worst of both worlds. India will not be able to stop the main trading nations from moving forward with an e-commerce agenda at the WTO. Even if one supported New Delhi’s position, it would be better placed to obstruct if it was sitting at the table rather than sulking on the pavement. Once the other countries set the agenda, India would find itself in the onerous position of having to decide on a set of parameters that it will have no means to modify or dilute.
There is a larger concern here. The WTO is under unprecedented pressure. China has been undermining it for years through chronic rule-breaking. The United States has now joined in, arguing the body is out of touch with economic reality and sabotaging its dispute settlement system. The WTO’s “one nation, one vote” system gives India far more clout than its one per cent share of global trade would merit. But by declining to be part of the WTO reform process, New Delhi only helps hasten the body’s irrelevance. The various panels currently constituted to review India’s trade policy should take this larger issue on board. They should also make the case for India to use WTO norms to hasten liberalisation at home. The official mindset is that India cannot compete globally. That this malaise now afflicts New Delhi’s thinking about e-commerce, a mix of information technology and services, will guarantee India becoming marginal even in sectors it believed it was globally competitive.
First Published: Jan 31, 2019 17:50 IST