President Joe Biden’s trade chief said that after a first day of talks, she’s “very optimistic” that a meeting with counterparts from around the world will make progress on boosting the effectiveness of the World Trade Organization.

Speaking on the sidelines of the WTO’s 13th biennial ministerial conference in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that a successful week would mean “actually advancing the conversation around the vision that we are going to articulate around the WTO.”

“We want to have a WTO that’s fit for purpose amidst all the changes in the global economy,” she said in an interview. “That leaves us a lot of room in terms of where the different issues are going to land.”

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai

Ministers representing the WTO’s member nations are meeting in the UAE capital on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula this week to try to revive the global trade arbiter and negotiating forum after years of political criticism for outgrowing its original mandate and failing to keep pace with economic change.

The meeting also comes at a time when free-flowing commerce — whether it’s shipping through the Red Sea, the Black Sea or the Panama Canal — is under strain from armed conflict and climate change.

In a September speech, Tai outlined US priorities for overhauling the WTO that include improving transparency, rebuilding the WTO’s ability to negotiate and improving its dispute resolution system.

In the interview on Tuesday, Tai praised the WTO’s ability to convene trade policymakers to work for common goals. She didn’t go into detail on US proposals on issues including agriculture that are on the agenda for this week.

India’s Arrival

She noted that those discussions have yet to begin, and that India’s commerce minister Piyush Goyal — considered a pivotal participant in this week’s WTO talks — doesn’t arrive until Tuesday night.

India has often taken a tough negotiating position in past WTO agreements, in part over protection of its domestic agriculture industry that feeds the nation’s 1.4 billion people. Big foreign exporters have long sought to open India’s markets to their farm goods.

On the newer issue of electronic commerce, Tai said that the US policy on continuing the WTO’s tariff prohibition on digital trade hasn’t significantly changed despite the Biden administration having withdrawn a longstanding US position on another digital trade discussion among a subgroup of WTO member nations in October.

India has indicated an openness to allowing tariffs on digitally delivered services, a step that has been prohibited through a moratorium that’s been repeatedly renewed every few years since 1998. Indonesia and South Africa have also shown an interest in potentially allowing the moratorium to terminate, which could happen automatically in late March if WTO members allow it to lapse.

On Monday, Tai met with China’s Commerce Minister Wang Wentao after prior meetings in Detroit during a Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ministers’ and at the Group of 20 in Bangkok in November 2022.

“It is a respectful conversation where each of us sought to be heard and better understood in terms of our perspectives on the relationship,” she said.

The Biden administration has been reviewing US tariffs on more than $300 billion in annual imports from China that were put in place by former President Donald Trump due to China’s alleged intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.