Setting the Rules of the Game: Mega-Regionals and the Role of the WTO

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Faced with a WTO in a state of paralysis, large developed trading nations have shifted their attentions to other fora to pursue their trade policy objectives. In particular, preferential trade agreements (PTAs) are now being used to promote the regulatory disciplines that were previously rejected by developing countries at the multilateral level. These so-called ‘deep’ or ‘21st century’ PTAs address a variety of issues, from technical norms, procurement, investment protection and intellectual property rights to social and environmental protection. Moreover, recently, developed countries have sought to negotiate PTAs which are large in scale, both in terms of economic size and geographical reach, including the so-called ‘mega-regional’ PTAs, such as the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the EU-Japan PTA, the Transpacific Partnership, and the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. These mega-regional PTAs are distinctive not just in terms of their sheer size and the breadth and depth of issues addressed, but also because some of their proponents readily admit that one of the central aims pursued by such agreements is to design global rules on new trade issues. In other words, these agreements are being conceived as alternatives to multilateral rule making at the WTO level. The proliferation of 21st century trade deals raises important questions concerning the continued relevance of the WTO as a global rule-making venue, and the impact that the regulatory disciplines promoted in such agreements will have on both developing and developed countries. This paper discusses the emerging features of an international trading system that is increasingly populated by large-scale PTAs and discusses some of the points of tension that arise from such practice. Firstly, it examines instances of horizontal tension resulting from the proliferation of PTAs, particularly the extent to which such PTAs represent a threat or multilateral trade governance. Secondly, it looks at an example of vertical tension by examining the manner in which the imposition of regulatory disciplines through trade agreements can undermine the ability of countries, especially developing countries, to pursue legitimate public interest objectives. Finally, the paper considers a number of steps that could be considered to address some of the adverse effects associated with the fragmentation of the international trading system, including the option of embracing variable geometry within the WTO framework and the need to develop mechanisms that provide flexibility for developing countries in the implementation of regulatory disciplines.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-153
Number of pages53
JournalUCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2017


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