2021 Washington International Trade Conference Recap





On Monday, February 8th, and Tuesday, February 9th, 2021, WITA hosted its third annual Washington International Trade Conference (WITC) for the first time virtually. This conference brought together leaders in both the public and private trade sectors to discuss pressing issues and trends surrounding trade policy. 

The event began with remarks from Kenneth I. Levinson, Executive Director of WITA, as he introduced the first group of panelists: Wendy Cutler, President and Managing Director at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Susan Shirk, Research Professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, Aaron L. Friedberg, Professor of Politics & International Affairs at Princeton University, and Ambassador Kurt Tong, Partner at The Asia Group, who shared their thoughts on how trade fits into the overall US-China relationship. 

The U.S. China panel was primarily focused around the overall US-China relationship and how trade fits into the larger picture. From joining the WTO to now, China has significantly increased its dominance in global trade, economic, and financial markets and has now become a credible threat to U.S. hegemony due to large economic pressure.

Looking forward to the Biden administration, the panelists discussed where we are now in our relationship with China, how the Biden review will be conducted, and how trade fits into this multi-faceted relationship. Over the past few months we have seen RCEP signed, the development of the China EU investment deal, and we have now heard talk about China reviving trilateral negotiations with Japan and Korea. The panelists explored the potential impact of the Biden review and present internal focus on China’s growing hegemonic status. 

The Trade & Environmental Sustainability Panel focused on the growing global concern of climate change and how this issue intersects with trade. As the United States has most recently rejoined the Paris Accords and a variety of new executive orders have underpinned the Biden administration’s focus on mitigating climate change, there has been a shift in the international system on the pertinence of this issue. It is important to recognize where the U.S. and its allies now stand on sustainable policies that influence trade and consider how realistic it would be for less developed countries to accommodate the necessary standard to fight climate change. 

The discussion focused on both the EU and New Zealand’s positions on climate change as they relate to trade and what we should center our negotiations on going forward. Although there is promise with the Biden administration on these issues, it is undetermined what the administration’s nationally determined contribution in the Paris agreement will be which will be an important indicator of the level of emissions and leadership role on climate change. The panelists were Amb. Robert Holleyman, Partner at Crowell & Morning LLP, C&M International, Amb. Vangelis Vitalis, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, Madelaine Tuininga, DG Trade Head of Unit in the European Commission, and Himamauli Das, Senior Managing Director at K2 Integrity. 

The next panel centered around finding a way forward on digital trade and delved into the intersection between trade and technology. As more and more countries are considering how they may tax or regulate the space, this issue has become of increasing relevance. As digital tools are a crucial driver of U.S. economic growth, it is clear they present both an incredible opportunity for progress and new challenges. The panelists featured were Arrow Augerot, Director of America’s Public Policy at Amazon, Jason Oxman, President & CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, Sahra English, Vice President of Public Policy at Mastercard, and Peter Swire, Senior Counsel at Alston & Bird LLP. 

The final panel of the day was the Ambassadors Trade Roundtable with panelists: Amb. Susan Schwab, Mayer Brown LLP, Dame Karen Pierce DCMG, British Ambassador to the USA, Amb. Nestor Forster Brazil’s Ambassador to the USA, Amb. Stavros Lambrinidis EU Ambassador to the USA, and Amb. Arthur Sinodinos Australia’s Ambassador to the USA. The ambassadors shed light on the trade landscape from their perspectives and offered insight into what is important in their countries in dealing with the U.S. and other trading partners. The discussion later touched on the future of the WTO and what each ambassador saw as top priorities for the organization to address.

The second day of WITA’s virtual conference program opened with remarks from Kenneth I. Levinson, Executive Director of WITA and Amb. Alan Wm. Wolff, Deputy Director General of the WTO. Amb. Alan Wolff shared his thoughts on necessary reform and revitalization of the WTO and how its role should evolve. Terence Stewart, author of the blog Current Thoughts on Trade, joined the discussion and gauged Amb. Wolff’s perspective on the WTO’s interest in engaging in more sectoral and regional trade agreements. 

The following panel built off of the previous discussion into a more in-depth conversation about WTO Revitalization & Reform from a broader group of perspectives. Many of the panelists highlighted the importance of improving our relationship with China, getting our dispute settlement system back on track and addressing pertinent 21st century issues such as those involving digital trade and climate change. The panelists featured were Amb. Rufus Yerxa, National Foreign Trade Council, Jennifer Hillman, Council on Foreign Relations, Simon Evenett from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, and Hiddo Houben, EU Mission to the WTO.

The next panel centered around the question: “What would a Neo-Progressive Trade Agenda look like?” with panelists from around the world. The panel opened with an introductory discussion of how the WTO has lagged in recognizing the intersection of trade with other issues today and the importance of looking at things in a more wholistic way. Some of the speakers brought up issues related to the environment, gender and labor that requires a new model of trade in order to create shared prosperity and growth. The panelists featured were: Catherine Novelli, Listening For America, Beth Baltzan, American Phoenix Trade Advisory Service, Catherine Feingold AFL-CIO International Department, Katrin Kuhlmann, New Markets Lab, and Kimberley Botwright from the World Economic Forum. 

For the closing keynote and discussion of the conference, WITA was pleased to present Chairman Neal of the House Ways & Means Committee who offered his insight into the contours of trade policy in 2021 and Steve Lamar of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and WITA’s Board President. The Chairman stressed the importance of using trade tools to address many of the issues we face today and the promise of the Biden administration to tackle inequities and reassert U.S. leadership.