U.S. Withdrawal from the World Health Organization and Decision to Revoke Preferential Treatment for Hong Kong — Reduced Cooperation as COVID-19 Pandemic Rages on

On May 29, 2020, President Trump indicated that the United States was withdrawing from the World Health Organization (“WHO”) because of the WHO’s failure to adopt reforms the U.S. had demanded and the belief of a bias within the WHO towards China and China’s failure to provide timely information on the start of the virus and the likely nature of the problem. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/us/politics/trump-hong-kong-china-WHO.html. This followed the U.S.’s earlier temporary withholding of funds from the WHO while awaiting developments on reforms.

President Trump also indicated that in light of actions by China to assert security controls over Hong Kong, the U.S. viewed China as violating its commitment to maintain “one China, two systems” and would accordingly be taking actions to remove special treatment provided Hong Kong in a wide range of areas (extradition, export controls, etc.) and would be treating Hong Kong as part of China for tariffs, export controls, etc. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-cancel-visas-for-some-chinese-graduate-students-11590744602.

Not surprisingly, China has reacted negatively to the statements of President Trump on Hong Kong and has threatened to take retaliatory actions if the U.S. takes actions contrary to China’s interests and indicated that any U.S. action was doomed to fail. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-30/china-says-us-action-on-hong-kong-doomed-to-fail; https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/30/china-says-us-action-on-hong-kong-doomed-to-fail.html.

Concerns have also been raised that U.S. action would be a double-edged sword in light of the large trade surplus the U.S. has with Hong Kong and the enormous presence of U.S. businesses in Hong Kong. For example, based on U.S. Census data as compiled by the U.S. International Trade Commission, the United States had a trade surplus with Hong Kong (total exports – general imports) of $26.086 billion in 2019 [the trade surplus based on domestic exports – imports of consumption being lower at $11.845 billion]. While China has not identified actions it is considering, harming U.S. interests in Hong Kong would obviously be one avenue China might take.

The trade implications, in terms of U.S. imports from Hong Kong, are relatively minor. If imports from Hong Kong are treated as imports from China, imports of items subject to additional duties from the 301 investigation would be relatively minor. That is because U.S. imports for consumption from Hong Kong in 2019 were just $4.646 billion, with half of that being under HS 9810 for articles that have been imported after exportation, after repair, etc. If China were to impose additional duties on U.S. exports to Hong Kong, the effect would be larger. U.S. domestic exports to Hong Kong in 2019 were $16.491 billion.

Increased tensions; reduced cooperation

Whatever the merits of the actions being taken by the United States (and the reactions anticipated from China), the results are predictable — we are entering a period of reduced cooperation and coordination of actions to address the pandemic as well as increasing bilateral tensions between the U.S. and China at a time of global economic contraction. This despite the fact that cooperation has been less than robust even before the current increased tensions.

In the trade arena, the pandemic continues to grow in severity as confirmed cases continue to climb globally with the hot spots shifting. Cooperation at the WTO and G20 is critical in terms of keeping markets open, minimizing export restraints, addressing logistics needs in a manner that preserves the health needs of importing countries, avoiding inventory builds of agricultural products, the introduction of export restraints where there is no underlying agriculture production problem globally, taking actions to expand production of medical goods to meet the demand surge flowing from the pandemic, ensuring transparency, and promoting best practices. The world is struggling already to achieve the trade needs identified above. Reduced cooperation will make the challenges that much harder.

Similarly, the search for vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to effectively prevent, treat and identify medical needs requires global cooperation, information sharing and the work of a multilateral institution like the WHO and various NGOs to ensure all peoples who need these products have equitable and affordable access to them when developed. Trials on potential vaccines are at various stages in China, in the United States and in Europe and possibly other areas. Often the research is amongst companies working jointly from multiple jurisdictions. Which research project or projects will prove effective, if any, is obviously not known. Implications of a lack of cooperation between countries should effective vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics be developed are for the possible hording of products, refusal to sell to other countries or delays in sharing and other actions that would make global escape from the pandemic harder, longer and more deadly.

And for many developing and least developed countries, the pandemic, whether significantly affecting individual countries directly, threatens most countries through contraction in global trade (estimated to be between 13 and 32% by the WTO in 2020), limited financial capabilities to address budget shortfalls and increased unemployment and challenges to existing health care infrastructure from the pandemic. Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the IMF and others are critical here but are dependent on the cooperation of key members like the U.S., China, and others. While these organizations have been working effectively to date, the size of the challenge posed by the pandemic which is unprecedented will likely result in additional funding needs in the coming months or years which will require cooperation to meet.


The United States and China have very different economic and political systems. In the trade sphere, the United States has reached the conclusion that coexistence of such disparate systems doesn’t make sense under the World Trade Organization’s rules which are premised on market-based economic policies. The U.S. actions vis-a-vis China on trade have been an effort to achieve reciprocity with China, a situation not possible under the existing WTO rules. That the U.S. effort to obtain reciprocity in fact is proving contentious is hardly surprising and will not likely lessen in bilateral tensions in the near future.

In the political sphere, our two systems have resulted and will continue to result in periodic tensions, such as we are currently witnessing over the actions of China on security measures in Hong Kong.

Historically, major nations who view each other as adversaries have been able to cooperate effectively on issues of mutual interest. That was true during the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union on certain issues. Whether the U.S. and China view each other as adversaries as well as competitors at the present time, the same ability to cooperate between them should be true when looking at issues such as addressing the pandemic effectively and efficiently.

Let us hope that regardless of the bilateral tensions and of the U.S. departure from the WHO, all WTO Members can step up their efforts to keep markets open and transparent and that governments will cooperate to ensure that medical developments are available to all on an equitable and affordable basis and that the financial resources are available to help those least able to weather the pandemic’s effects alone to survive and move forward.

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