PhD defence: Priya Dershini Parmalingam

The title of the thesis is "Why litigate? The role of political, bureaucratic and strategic incentives on recourse to trade litigation: Comparing the experiences of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in the WTO Dispute Settlement Mechanism".   

The thesis is available as an e-book via Academic books

Time and venue

Wednesday 13 November, 2019 at 14:00 at the University of Copenhagen, Centre for Health and Society, Department of Political Science, Øster Farimagsgade 5, DK-1353 Copenhagen K., room 4.2.26. Kindly note that the defence will start precisely at 14:00.

Assessment committee

  • Associate professor Jens Ladefoged Mortensen, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen (chair)
  • Professor Ari Kokko, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
  • Professor Anders Uhlin, Lund University, Sweden


In this dissertation, I systematically explain why certain Southeast Asian countries have been active in bringing trade disputes to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism (DSM), while others have avoided going down that route. More specifically, I account for the observed patterns of dispute initiation behaviour, using four ASEAN countries - Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand - as case studies. While Singapore and Malaysia were very early users of the DSM, they have only referred one trade dispute each to the DSM (1995 to present), unlike Indonesia and Thailand, which have been significantly more litigious, having referred 11 and 14 disputes to the WTO respectively over the same time period.

Building upon the existing literature - particularly on recent findings on the political utility of filing WTO disputes - I present my own theoretical framework to explain the very different rates of recourse to the WTO DSM. My central argument that emerges, based on my empirical research, is that while economic fundamentals matter, the specific relations and networks between firms, politicians and bureaucrats that have arisen based on the respective political settings in the four countries have created incentives that have either pushed domestic decisionmakers towards or away from WTO litigation. In my analysis, I use novel empirical data I have gathered, which includes interviews with 19 government officials and international trade experts, most of whom have directly been involved in one or more WTO disputes.

Through my in-depth analysis of each country, I also identify peripheral factors that are likely to have encouraged or deterred the four case countries from bringing trade disputes to the DSM. These include the following: the central role of transnational corporations in fuelling litigation, the preferences of government agencies and domestic trade policy elites, strategic motives that have encouraged decisionmakers to bring even disputes with seemingly low utility to the DSM, the four case countries’ adoption of differentiated strategies when dealing with different trade partners, and how various challenges – ranging from enforcement, the fear of retaliation and litigation capacity – have shaped the propensity to litigate. As a peripheral contribution, I have developed a standalone quantitative model, based on existing predictive models of DSM participation, which also confirms that Singapore and Malaysia are ‘underutilising’ the DSM, while Indonesia and Thailand have referred slightly more disputes to the WTO than might be expected. With respect to each specific case country, I also explain any observed evolution in their respective approaches towards trade litigation, since 1995.