Cabinet members split on joining WTO

The split in the thinking on Bhutan joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) was visible in the very different answers that two cabinet ministers gave the meet the press yesterday.

A more positive Minister for Economic Affairs Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk said that Bhutan had attended the 10th WTO conference at Nairobi, Kenya and also the 9th conference at Bali, Indonesia before that.

He said that question for Bhutan is not whether to join or not but on when was it a suitable time to join WTO.

“The answer lies on how WTO is relevant to us and whether it would benefit us. In the post Bali meetings in my meetings with the private sector and some stakeholder we got the impression that the society is ready to join,” said Lyonpo.

He said Bhutan was already reaping the benefits of being a WTO observer which provides support for harmonization of trade, simplification of customs and procedures and the benefits has been showing results.

The minister said that there needed to be more education and understanding on WTO.

“As of now there needs to be more dialogue with stakeholders so that stakeholders can form an opinion and judgment on WTO,” said Lyonpo.

On the other hand a much less enthusiastic answer was given by the Foreign Minister Lyonpo Damcho Dorji who said that an important aspect is the harmonization of the Customs Act.

He said joining WTO would mean multiple negotiations with different states depending on what Bhutan is getting or offering. He said Bhutan’s exports are very limited and its export market is limited to its neighbors.

The Foreign Minister pointed out that Bhutan’s exports while being limited was situated in between the world’s two biggest, cost efficient and cheapest exporters.

He said Bhutan already has a most favored nation trade agreement with India and good trade with Bangladesh. He said it needs to be seen if Bhutan can really benefit from joining WTO. He said more obligations with benefits are not in the interest of the country.

Lyonpo Damcho said that the private sector was in a very weak and infant stage and if it opened to the market then there would be immense pressure and Bhutan’s private sector would not have the same level of competitiveness. He said it was the duty of the government to protect the private sector. The minister said that there needs to be more study and Bhutan needs to wait for a while.

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