The WTO is an organization in crisis in part because of a system of rules created by market economy countries that doesn’t adequately deal with large economies with different economic systems. China is the largest and most obvious example but by no means the only WTO Member operating economic systems that are not consistent with market economy principles. While China engaged in significant changes to its system in its efforts to join the WTO and had undertaken commitments for further changes that would move China towards a market economy, changes in political leadership led to a reversal in direction, with emphasis on state planning, state-owned and state-invested enterprises to pursue the government’s objectives and massive government subsidies to take over global economic sectors. While China views opposition to its system as a means of trying to hold China back from achieving the economic growth it pursues, many trading partners view China’s approach to global trade and investment as highly disruptive and inconsistent with basic principles of reciprocity and the disciplines of the WTO on market economies.
The Trump Administration has changed the U.S. approach for trying to deal with China by its pursuit of a section 301 investigation and resulting tariffs when it could not get China to change its policies and actions. The U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement was an effort to find a way to address at least some of the challenging practices and address resulting trade distortions through purchase objectives. Many trading partners have been concerned that the U.S. approach, at least as it involves purchasing objectives, constituted managed trade. A phase two U.S.-China negotiation to deal with remaining major concerns has not started and apparently won’t before the November 2020 U.S. elections.
The European Union and Japan have been working with the United States to put together proposed modifications to existing WTO agreements to deal with some of the aspects of the Chinese economic system (but also relevant to other Members) that cause massive distortions — industrial subsidies, excess capacity, state-owned and state-invested enterprises. China has repeatedly indicated that any efforts to address these issues at the WTO will be blocked by China as such efforts are viewed as aimed at restricting China’s rise.
Earlier this week (July 20), a former EC Director General for Trade, Peter Carl, penned an opinion piece in Les Echos with the provocative title, “A new WTO is needed without China” (literally A new WTO must see the day without China). https://www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/cercle/opinion-une-nouvelle-omc-doit-voir-le-jour-sans-la-chine-1224748.
Mr. Carl indicates in the opinion piece that “Europe’s trade policy has stagnated for twenty years. It no longer meets the demands of today’s world and the European public attributes the loss of millions of jobs to China.” (all quotes from the opinion piece are informal translations by Google Translate ). The opinion is remarkable as it comes from a former senior EC trade official.
“Our policy is outdated and based on an outdated ideology that is identical to what it was before the arrival of China on the world state, after its accession to the WTO in 2001. Its centralized economy, its powerful industrial policy in all the key sectors, its enormous state subsidies, combined with a government apparatus and a political repression as powerful as those of the ex-USSR, swept large swathes of European and American industry. However, we act as if we were in the heyday of the 1990s, when our main competitors were other market economies, Japan, Korea, the United States. Our inaction resembles the ostrich policy and unilateral pacifism of the 1930s. We know the results. We must therefore protect our liberal economies and our open societies against adversaries. This requires a fundamental review of the trade policy of the European Union and the WTO.”
Mr. Carl calls for a complete reform of the WTO with the EU teaming up with the U.S. and other like-minded Members but recognizes that meaningful reform will be blocked by China. “The solution: withdraw from the WTO and create a new international trade organization without China. Most countries would follow our example. We would return to an open world economic order between market economy countries sharing the same ideas, on the basis of clear and reinforced principles in favor of the free market.” Mr. Carl advocates for the adoption of rules that would deal with “abuses” of the China model including improved subsidy disciplines and “rules against social, environmental dumping and inaction on climate change.” Such new rules are needed to permit the EU to green its economy.
Mr. Carl, addressing concerns that his proposal represents a turn to managed trade, says simply that “This is what we already have, although only China manages it, and we are suffering the consequences.”
That Mr. Carl felt the need to publish such a strongly worded opinion shows the underlying and growing tensions felt by major trading partners from a major economic power with a fundamentally different economic system than that pursued by the historic major players in world trade.
For WTO Members and their businesses and workers, the rising discontent by many with the functioning of the WTO and its ability to achieve meaningful reform should be a wake-up call. The WTO to be relevant must have rules that address the world in the 21st century. The WTO must also be able to have Members assume increased responsibilities as their stage of economic development evolves. Similarly, the WTO must confront whether existing rules can be modified to generate greater coverage of practices by different types of economic systems. If not, the WTO must consider whether it can survive where all Members don’t follow similar economic systems.
Unfortunately, there appears little likelihood that many of these critical reforms will be addressed in the coming years. China has objected to WTO Members trying to modify existing agreements to address distortions caused by China’s economic system. China has also objected to the U.S. effort to have Members consider whether WTO rules require Members to operate market-economy based systems. China and others have objected to U.S. efforts to define “developing country” and effectively have Members take on obligations commensurate to their stage of economic development. Stated differently, China is working hard to defend the status quo and prevent consideration of reforms that would achieve greater balance among all WTO Members.
While USTR Lighthizer and others have said that if the WTO didn’t exist, it would have to be created, Mr. Carl’s opinion suggests that one option that may take on greater appeal is the withdrawal from the WTO and the creation of a new international trade regime among countries with similar economic systems. Such a move away from the WTO would certainly involve enormous economic upheaval and political tensions. The more desirable course of action is to achieve timely reform of the WTO so that all Members feel the system achieves reasonable reciprocity.
Time will tell whether WTO Members find a path forward or whether the WTO becomes less and less relevant and even ceases to function. In a Member driven organization, the answer lies with the membership.