The World Today for November 16, 2018

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Snores, Conspiracies and Reform

Mention the World Trade Organization and most Americans will either start snoring (think: Japan suing South Korea over shipbuilding subsidies) or cite conspiracy theories about a totalitarian New World Order.

US President Donald Trump has called the WTO a “catastrophe” and a “disaster.”

Rhetoric aside, the escalating trade war between the United States and China has raised serious questions about how the 23-year-old institution should fulfill its mandate of helping to manage and adjudicate commercial disputes between economic powers.

The organization’s structure hasn’t been reformed for years, hobbling its effectiveness in regulating countries like China where the public and private sectors are intertwined, the Financial Times wrote in an editorial.

China might accept changes, but it’s not clear if the US would drop its tariffs on Chinese goods in return for them.

The US, meanwhile, wants to scrap the dispute settlement process. That’s when the WTO decides if, say, South Korea is in fact unfairly subsidizing its shipbuilders to the detriment of their Japanese competitors. But it’s not clear what scrapping dispute settlement would look like and whether other countries would accept such a move. The US has also blocked nominations of officials on the WTO’s appellate body, resulting in gridlock.

President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs are technically not part of the WTO, suggesting the organization is helpless to protect global commerce when the world’s largest economy decides to take unilateral action. If China did the same, Europe, Japan and everyone else would be left in the cold.

On the other hand, China arguably has never embraced the free markets in the manner that the WTO is supposed to encourage. It’s therefore not clear if the WTO is already on the path to irrelevancy.

“The WTO: Is it all over or can something be done?” wrote Livemint, an Indian financial news website, in a headline.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang agreed. “Some of (the WTO’s) members want to go it alone, while some want to scrap it and start all over again,” he told the Xinhua news service.

The Economist allowed a glimmer of optimism, however. Trump’s tariffs have highlighted how Chinese businesses need American customers. Perhaps China might accede to American demands to open its markets and play fair on trade in exchange for the White House dropping the tariffs. A renovated WTO might help oversee that deal.

In the meantime, a host of countries are hauling the US before the WTO to dispute Trump’s steel tariffs, CNBC reported. One can assume the WTO officials are relishing an opportunity to render judgment.



Showing Up

If Woody Allen is right that 80 percent of life is showing up, some believe the US is taking a big step backward in Southeast Asia.

President Donald Trump opted not to attend this week’s ASEAN summit in Singapore, signaling to many that America’s commitment to Asia is not as strong as it once was even as its trade war with China has prompted Beijing to redouble its efforts to court regional allies, CNBC reported.

Not great timing, considering that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned in his closing speech Thursday that ASEAN members may one day soon have to choose between the two global superpowers, according to Bloomberg.

Though Vice President Mike Pence, who attended in Trump’s place, stumped mightily for America’s new vision for the recently redefined “Indo-Pacific,” the absence of the president undercut his words, said Alex Capri, visiting senior fellow at the National University of Singapore.

One casualty could be US trade policy, considering that China, Japan and India are pushing a regional multilateral system of the sort Trump abhors.


A Difficult Divorce

Just after she declared that her cabinet accepted a draft scheme for Britain’s exit of the European Union, British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a revolt that could well result in her own ouster.

On Wednesday evening, May said her ministers had accepted the draft proposal but by 10:30 the next morning two cabinet ministers and three junior members of her government had resigned. Soon afterward, Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg had called for her to step down and make way for her erstwhile Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the Sun reported.

All but one of those who resigned were Brexiteers, CNN reported. Their objections ranged from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s worry about the indefinite backstop to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to more general concerns that the draft agreement surrenders too much control to the EU, including the prospect of staying in a customs union indefinitely.

Defiant, May on Thursday changed her long-held position that Brexit is inevitable, saying, “We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.”


Love Conquers All

Costa Rica’s constitutional court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, paving the way for the first such unions as early as mid-2020.

“It’s now just a matter of time. Full equal rights will come, love will prevail,” President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who took office in May, tweeted on Thursday. Legalizing gay marriage had been one of his campaign promises.

In a majority decision made public on Thursday, the court ruled that Costa Rica’s articles that prohibit equal civil marriage are unconstitutional and backed the opinion of the San Jose-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which said in January that countries in the region should legalize same-sex unions, Reuters reported.

Though Alvarado Quesada’s promise to protect the country’s reputation for tolerance is believed to have led to his defeat of his conservative opponent in the elections, only 30 percent of Costa Ricans favored same-sex marriage, according to a recent poll. The Catholic Church, too, criticized the court’s ruling.


Walking On Sunshine

Good news, finally: According to a UN report, Earth’s ozone layer is healing and is expected to completely regenerate within 50 years, CNN reported.

The invisible shield, located six miles above the planet, protects living things from the sun’s powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can cause skin cancer, cataracts and other diseases in humans.

“It’s really good news,” co-author Paul Newman told the Associated Press. “If ozone-depleting substances had continued to increase, we would have seen huge effects. We stopped that.”

Back in the 1980s, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – chemicals used in refrigerators and aerosol cans – were causing severe damage to the layer.

Nations issued a global ban of CFCs under the Montreal Protocol of 1987, forcing businesses to find alternatives.

Since 2000, scientists say, the ozone layer has been healing at a rate of 1 to 3 percent per decade.

Researchers, however, have observed emissions of a banned CFC coming from an unknown source in East Asia, pointing out that this could slow down progress if measures are not taken.

They estimate a full recovery by 2060, adding that if the threat had been ignored decades ago, the Earth would have lost two-thirds of its ozone layer by 2065.

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