OTTAWA - Top trade officials from 12 countries and the European Union on Thursday vowed to reform World Trade Organization rules in the face of U.S. actions that threaten to paralyze the body and address some of Washington's complaints about Chinese subsidies.
The officials, meeting in the Canadian capital Ottawa, said they shared a "common resolve for rapid and concerted action" to address challenges to the WTO.
"The current situation at the WTO is no longer sustainable. Our resolve for change must be matched with action," the officials said in a communique issued after their daylong meeting ended.
The United States and China, which are locked in an escalating tariff war that is threatening the WTO's foundations, were not invited to the meeting to discuss reform ideas, but Canadian Trade Minister Jim Carr said he would report outcomes to them and try to persuade them to join the reform effort.
Carr acknowledged that no WTO reforms could proceed without a buy-in from the world's two largest economies.
"They should listen because we're making good arguments," Carr told a news conference after the meeting, adding that the group's proposals would ultimately serve U.S. and Chinese interests.
The officials from Canada, the European Union, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and seven other countries agreed to meet again in January 2019 to review progress from their discussions.
They were short on specifics of their proposals, but called for urgent action to unblock the appointment of new judges to the Appellate Body of the WTO's dispute settlement system, which they said puts the functioning of the entire body at risk, causing rules enforcement to grind to a halt by the spring of 2019.
The statement did not refer directly to U.S. actions to block such appointments over longstanding complaints that many past appellate rulings have exceeded the judges' authority, unfairly favoring China and some other members.
"Our number one priority is getting dispute settlement back on track. What good is there to have rules if they cannot be enforced?" said one participating minister who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the 23-year-old trade body, with roots that date back to the end of World War II, if it does not "shape up" and treat the United States more fairly.
At the Ottawa meetings, Carr said "there was no blaming, there was no shaming" of the United States and the group agreed to consider "alternative" ways to settle disputes, including mediation.
The trade officials also said they recognize "the need to address market distortions caused by subsidies and other instruments," a reference to complaints by the United States and some other Western economies that current WTO anti-subsidy rules fail to capture all the ways China's government supports its industries and state enterprises.
The statement said the officials were concerned with WTO members' track record in complying with subsidy notification requirements and called for stronger monitoring and transparency of countries' trade policies.
The member group also vowed to "reinvigorate" the WTO's long-stalled negotiating function, calling for talks to curb fisheries subsidies to be completed in 2019.
Mexico's Deputy Economy Minister Juan Carlos Baker said world leaders would have a chance to press the United States, China and other nations twice next month — at an Asia-Pacific summit and a meeting of leaders of the G-20 group of nations.
"We are going to waste no opportunity whatsoever in terms of political events. ... I am sure that we will use these occasions to speak about what we're doing," he said in an interview.