G20 Trade and Investment Ministerial Meeting — Meaningful Help for COVID-19 Response and WTO Reform?



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

On May 14, 2020, the G20 trade and investment ministers held a virtual meeting to consider proposals for joint action pulled together by the Trade and Investment Working Group (“TIWG”) on the topic of “G20 Actions to Support World Trade and Investment Through the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

The Ministerial statement released on the 14th endorsed the TIWG proposals which were attached to the statement and contain both short-term actions designed to “alleviate the impact of COVID-19” and longer-term actions intended to “support the necessary reform of the WTO and the multilateral trading system, build resilience in global supply chains, and strengthen international investment.” 

The WTO’s Director-General Roberto Azevêdo welcomed the Ministerial statement and provided the following characterization of its content:

“DG Azevêdo hails G20 pledges on trade cooperation in COVID-19 response

“WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo welcomed G20 ministers’ endorsement of collective action measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on trade and investment and help foster global economic recovery. The initiatives were endorsed at a virtual meeting of the G20 trade and investment ministers on 14 May.

“The actions include short-term responses designed to prevent trade logjams and facilitate trade in products needed to contain COVID-19, as well as longer-term support to reform the multilateral trading system, build resilience in global supply chains, and strengthen international investment.

“The G20 ministers pledged to promote WTO reform and ‘support the role of the multilateral trading system in promoting stability and predictability of international trade flows’. They agreed to ‘explore COVID-19 related WTO initiatives’ to promote more open and resilient supply chains, and expand production capacity and trade in pharmaceuticals, medical and other health-related products

“’These commitments by G20 ministers represent an important collective response to the trade-related challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic,’ said DG Azevêdo. ‘Maintaining stability and predictability in trade relations is critical to ensuring that essential medical supplies are available to save lives, and that global food security and nutrition do not become a casualty of this pandemic.’

“Echoing language from their first crisis meeting in late March, G20 ministers said that any emergency restrictions on trade in vital medical supplies and services should be targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and should not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disrupt global supply chains. They also agreed to strengthen transparency and notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken. They urged governments to refrain from excessive food stockpiling and export restrictions on agricultural products.

“In addition, the G20 ministers endorsed trade facilitation initiatives, including accelerated implementation of provisions in the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, such as pre-arrival processing and expedited shipment, which could speed up access to essential goods during the pandemic. They also called for streamlining customs procedures and encouraging greater use of international standards to reduce sanitary and technical barriers to trade.

“Ministers also agreed to work together to identify key areas where investment is needed, in particular for critical medical supplies and sustainable agriculture production, and to encourage
investment in new production capacity for medical supplies.

“The extraordinary meeting of G20 trade and investment ministers was organized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which currently holds the group’s rotating presidency.”

Because the G20 member countries have di ering views on flexibilities needed, already taken, and potential space that may be needed in the future, much of the “actions” agreed to are more aspirational than commitments to avoid trade restrictive actions.

ANNEX to Ministerial Statement of May 14, 2020, G20 Actions to Support World Trade and Investment in Response to COVID-19

The Annex to the Ministerial Statement contains 19 “short-term collective actions” broken into five areas — “trade regulation”; “trade facilitation”; “transparency”; “operation of logistics networks”; and “support for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)”.

Trade regulation

On trade regulation, the three specific actions don’t ban export restraints for medical goods or agricultural products but rather provide avenues for such actions to be taken.

On medical goods, the action taken merely repeats the prior statement from the trade and investment ministers that any such actions are “targeted, proportionate, transparent, temporary” and “do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains, and are consistent with WTO rules”. Para. 1.1.1.

Similarly, on agricultural restrictions, G20 countries agree to “refrain from introducing export restrictions” “avoid unnecessary food-stockpiling” but “without prejudice to domestic food security, consistent with national requirements.” Para. 1.1.2.

Finally, there is an aspirational action to “Consider exempting humanitarian aid related to COVID-19 from any export restrictions on exports of essential medical supples, medical equipment and personal protective equipment, consistent with national requirements.” Para. 1.1.3.

Considering the number of G20 countries who have had in place or continue to have in place export restraints on medical goods and the history of export restraints on agricultural goods and/or buildup of food stockpiling by some G20 countries, it is not surprising that more ambitious objectives have not been possible. For example, information compiled by the WTO Secretariat shows that nearly all G20 countries have had or continue to have export restraints on medical goods flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the US, EU, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey and the United Kingdom are in the WTO data. While China is not included, their export restrictions on medical goods likely predated the data collection done by the WTO.

Trade facilitation

The Annex includes eight agreed “actions” under the heading of trade facilitation. Most of these actions are similarly not binding but are aspirational or encouraged. In fact five of the eight include the word “encourage”. Others include language like “to the extent possible” or “as appropriate and according with applicable national legislation”.

That said, many of the G20 countries and others have been taking actions to streamline the release of imported medical goods and other actions that are consistent with the objectives of the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Two of the provisions under trade facilitation really go to the issue medical goods capacity, product availability and capacity expansions and are noteworthy as encouraging sharing of information on producers of product and also encouraging expansion of medical goods capacity. Paras. 1.2.4 and 1.2.5. As I have noted in prior posts, there has been and continues to be an imbalance between global capacity to produce the medical goods needed to fight COVID-19 and the demand for countries experiencing outbreaks. See, e.g., Shi ing Trade Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/28/shi ing-trade-needs-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/ (https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/28/shi ing-trade-needs-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/). If the world doesn’t address the supply/demand imbalance, it is highly improbable that most countries won’t enact export restraints to prevent the loss of needed goods that are in country during surging demand. While neither G20 agreed action is binding, both are helpful to improve knowledge of available supplies and hopefully to expand that supply.

The last trade facilitation action merely calls for G20 countries to “Support the e orts of international organizations (WTO, FAO, WFP, etc.) to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on global agricultural supplies, distribution chains and agri-food production and trade.” Para. 1.2.8. Many of the G20 are signatories to statements indicating they will not impose export restraints on agricultural goods or urge restraint on the use of such restraints. There has not been a food shortage in 2020, and mechanisms put in place a er the 2007-2008 food shortages to monitor food supplies have helped to provide governments with better information on likely problems. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges in getting agricultural products harvested, processed and distributed. If these challenges are not properly

handled, the world could find local or regional food shortages not because of lack of product but from an inability to get the product harvested, processed and distributed. With COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in various countries (United States, Canada, Germany to name just three) and with travel restrictions limiting movement of temporary farm workers, the challenges are real. Work of the international organizations is important for information gathering and dissemination.


There are two action items under transparency — to share experiences and best practices; to notify trade-related measures to the WTO as required by obligations to the WTO.

The first should be helpful depending on openness of governments and willingness of governments to share experiences in fact. The latter action reflects the fact that countries (whether G20 or otherwise) have in some cases been slow to provide notifications or have taken limited views of their obligations to report certain trade related activities.

Operation of logistics networks

The four agreed actions under this title all involve trade ministers encouraging G20 Transport Ministers to take actions that will speed the movement of medical goods, increasing air cargo capacity, improve transparency on enforcement measures and “to abide by international practices and guidelines to ensure the movement of goods through maritime channels.” Paras. 1.4.1 – 1.4.4.

Support for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs)

There are two action items for this topic — calling for reports from international organizations that would look at the “disruption of global value chains caused by the pandemic on MSMEs”; and encouraging enhancement of communication channels and networks for MSMEs, including through deepened collaboration with the private sector.” Paras. 1.5.1 and 1.5.2.

MSMEs are important engines of economic growth for all countries and are significantly adversely a ected by the governmental actions needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. For many countries, the bulk of the response for MSMEs will be through financial support legislation as can be seen by summaries of actions taken compiled by one or more of the international organizations. 

Thus, the two actions contained in the G20 trade and investment ministers statement are helpful for considering future actions but don’t address the core immediate needs which are handled by other ministers.

Longer-term collective actions

The Annex also contains nineteen specific agreed actions for the longer term. The actions are broken into three topics — supporting the mutilateral trading system; building resilience in global supply chains; and strengthening international investment.

Like the short-term actions, the agreed list reflects the limitations on achieving G20 consensus because of di erent perspectives of G20 members. Some members like the EU have an interest in pursuing tari eliminations on medical goods, an issue that the U.S. is not willing to explore until the pandemic has passed. Thus, there is no action item to achieve tari elimination on such products in the longer-term actions.

Supporting the multilateral trading system

There are seven action items which include WTO reform (para 2.1.1), how the G20 can support work at the WTO (para 2.1.2), strengthening transparency and WTO notifications (para. 2.1.3), working “together to deliver a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment and to keep our markets open” (para. 2.1.4), “work to ensure a level playing field” (para. 2.1.5), importance of interface between trade and digital economy and need for e-commerce agreement (para. 2.1.6), and exploring “COVID-19 related WTO initiative to promote open and more resilient supply chains, and expand production capacity and trade” in medical goods (para. 2.1.7).

These action items will have very di erent meanings depending on the G20 member who is interpreting them. Thus, the EU, Japan and the U.S. would have very di erent interpretations of ensuring a level playing field than would China and possibly others. India and South Africa have di erent views on e- commerce and making permanent no tari s on digital trade than would the U.S., Japan and others

Still support for WTO reform, global rules on e-commerce, increased transparency and the other issues should help provide some focus in the ongoing e orts at the WTO for a future agenda and reform.

As noted in the short-term actions, greater focus by G20 countries on the supply/demand imbalance in medical goods is critical to avoid many of the same shortage issues in future pandemics or future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the support for para. 2.1.7 is potentially important.

Building resilience in global supply chains

There are five action items included under this topic which are positive. These include sharing best practices, strengthening cooperation on regulation of trade (including customs and electronic document management), ensuring transparency of trade-related information useful to MSMEs, encouraging cooperation between multinationals and MSMEs, and establishing voluntary guidelines that would permit essential cross-border travel during a health crisis. Paras. 2.2.1 – 2.2.5.

While these action items could be useful going forward, there is a major omission in this important category. Does building resilience in global supply chains necessitate building in increased redundancy or for onshoring some products or inputs? This is an important issue that has raised concerns among some G20 members that there is too great dependence on certain countries for input materials and that supply chains don’t have su icient redundancy or are too “global” and not su iciently regional or national. The United States, for example, has expressed concerns about over dependence on other countries and has been looking at encouraging domestic production of some key products/inputs. Such an approach is not supported by the EU or China. See statement of Ambassador Lighthizer at the virtual G20 Trade and Investment Ministers meeting of May 14 and the statements of the U.S., EU and Chinese Ambassadors to the WTO’s virtual General Council meeting on COVID-19 responses lays out the di erent perspective on this and some other issues. While G20 countries generally all agree that it is not possible to be self-su icient in the medical goods area, that view doesn’t answer the question of whether supply chains should be changed or whether there are certain products where a country or countries could decide self-su iciency is sufficiently important to take different actions. From the very different views on this topic, it is not surprising that the G20 collective long-term actions were limited in the building resilience group of actions, and such differences also likely influenced the language used in the third section on strengthening international investment.

Strengthening international investment

The last seven long-term collective actions focus on the obvious need for improved investment in medical goods to reduce the stress on the global system that has flowed from the imbalance in supply versus demand and the lack of adequate national, regional and global inventories.

Collective actions include sharing best practices on promoting investments in sectors where there have been shortages (para. 2.3.2), working together to identify key areas where additional investment is needed in both medical goods and agriculture (para. 2.3.3), and four paragraphs (2.3.4 – 2.3.7) encouraging investment in new capacity, working with the private sector to identify opportunities, and other items. The last action item calls on G20 governments to “Encourage cooperation on technical assistance and capacity building provided to developing and least developed countries on investment promotion.” Para. 2.3.7.

Because many countries have been encouraging expanded production of medical goods since the outbreak of the pandemic, there is a great deal of investment that has been happening, including converting (at least short term) production lines to medical goods in short supply. Missing from the collective actions is any encouragement to the Finance Ministers to ensure the international organizations work with developing and least developed countries to ensure adequate regional inventories of medical goods to help such countries address outbreaks of COVID-19.

The G20 Trade and Investment Ministers Statement of May 14 is embedded below.

Terry Stewart's Thoughts on Trade May 17th PDF


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect millions of people around the world and has resulted in massive economic dislocations and the loss of tens of millions of jobs just in the United States. The G20 has been doing a reasonable job of providing leadership in how to address the pandemic and how to help the world recover as the pandemic recedes. The significant di erences between G20 members on some issues have resulted in actions being taken that are either aspirational or simply encouraged, as stronger action was not possible absent consensus. But the May 14 Ministerial Statement is another positive step and provides ongoing recognition of needing to address the supply/demand imbalance to permit all countries to be able to obtain medical goods needed when the pandemic creates hot spots in their countries.

The original article can be found at Current Thoughts on Trade here