China

A new WTO without China? The July 20, 2020 Les Echos opinion piece by Mogens Peter Carl, a former EC Director General for Trade and then Environment

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.

U.S.-China Phase I Deal is Failing Expanded U.S. Exports Even Before Recent Efforts by China to Limit Certain U.S. Agriculture Exports as Retaliation for U.S. Position on Hong Kong

The U.S.-China Phase I trade agreement went into effect in mid-February just as the COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly spreading globally.  In the United States, the U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture have released a series of statements indicating that China has been making a number of the substantive changes that were contained in the agreement, with the U.S. being pleased with the progress.  See, e.g. https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/may/usda-and-ustr-announce-continued-progress-implementation-us-china-phase-one-agreement

The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously reduced economic activity in the United States and in many other countries.  Despite such reduced economic activity in recent months, the U.S. Administration has remained optimistic about China’s meeting the agreement’s terms and the agreement being “a success,” including the significant increase in exports to China from the United States over two years (2020-2021).  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/may/usda-and-ustr-announce-continued-progress-implementation-us-china-phase-one-agreement.  An important measure of the success will be the extent to which there are significant increases in U.S. exports.

As reviewed in a recent post, the United States has announced it will be terminating special status of Hong Kong in light of Chinese security actions taken vis-a-vis Hong Kong.  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, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/30/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/.  U.S. action did not call for the termination of the US-China Phase I Agreement.  In recent days, the press have reported that China has ordered state-owned entities to stop purchasing from the United States various agriculture products, including soybeans, pork, corn and cotton.  https://thehill.com/policy/finance/trade/500464-china-halts-state-purchases-of-us-soybeans-pork-report.  There have been some statements in the U.S. press suggesting that China continues to buy U.S. agricultural products including soybeans despite the earlier reports to the contrary.  See, e.g.,   https://insidetrade.com/trade/grassley-confident-china-will-meet-phase-one-commitments.

With April 2020 U.S. export data now available, what is clear is that China is far behind in meeting the levels of purchases from the United States in a wide range of goods categories to meet the first year growth over 2017 on goods of $63.9 billion.  Total U.S. domestic exports to China in 2017 were $119.910 billion.  The $63.9 billion increase of U.S. exports of goods were on a subset of total U.S. goods exports, just $66.381 billion.  Thus, the rate of increase in the first twelve months under the agreement is expected to be 96.26% on the categories contained in Annex 6.1 to the Agreement.  There are specific commitments with regard to certain manufactured goods (increase of $32.9 billion over 2017 levels), agriculture (increase of $12.5 billion over 2017 levels) and energy (increase of $18.5 billion over 2017 levels).  While there are no specific commitments on other products the U.S. exports to China, the rate of increase as measured against all U.S. domestic exports to China in 2017 would be 53.29% if all other products were at the same level as in 2017.

Unfortunately, looking just at March and April 2020 (the first two full months after the agreement took effect for which U.S. export data are available), U.S. domestic exports of the products contained in Annex 6.1 to the agreement declined by 4.04% from the March-April 2017 period.  All other U.S. domestic exports of goods to China declined 39.35% in March-April 2020 compared to the same period in 2017.  In total U.S. domestic exports to China of all products declined by 20.24% in March-April 2020 compared to the same months in 2017.  Thus, the early months of the first year of the Phase I Agreement are moving in the wrong direction in terms of U.S. exports.  While challenges in China and in the United States from the pandemic have undoubtedly dampened both demand in China and ability to ship from the U.S. for some products, that situation has changed in May and will presumably improve moving forward.

The above figures do not account for increased U.S. services exports to China contained in Annex 6.1 to the agreement (increase of $18.5 billion over 2017 levels).  Data for U.S. services exports for 2020 are not available by country at this point for January-April.  But overall U.S. services exports have been hard hit in the first four months of 2020 and this will include U.S. exports to China.  U.S. exports of services to the world were $169.482 billion in the January-April 2020 time frame, down from $193.010 billion in 2019, with March and April 2020 being more sharply contracted, $72.117 billion vs. $97.103 billion in 2019.  See https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/Press-Release/current_press_release/ft900.pdf (page 16).

The table below shows the 18 categories of goods for which there are growth commitments in Annex 6.1 of the Agreement.  All figures are in U.S.$ billions.

Product CategoryMarch-April 2017March-April 2020Change
Manufactured goods
1. Industrial machinery$1.845$2.091+$0.246
2. Electrical Equipment
and machinery
$0.694$0.867+$0.173
3. Pharmaceutical
products
$0.323$0.501+$0.178
4. Aircraft (orders and
deliveries
$0$0 $0
5. Vehicles$1.747$0.716-$1.031
6. Optical and medical
instruments
$0.522$0.566+$0.044
7. Iron and steel$0.232$0.081-$0.151
8. Other manufactured
goods
$1.737$2.224+$0.487
Subtotal — MFG goods$7.099$7.046-$0.053
Agriculture
9. Oilseeds$0.747$0.230-$0.517
10. Meat$0.106$0.582+$0.476
11. Cereals$0.224$0.194-$0.030
12. Cotton$0.229$0.200-$0.029
13. Other agricultural
commodities
$0.000$0.354+$0.354
14. Seafood$0.231$0.152-$0.079
Subtotal – Agriculture$1.536$1.712+$0.175
Energy
15. Liquefied natural
gas
$0.014$0.162+$0.148
16. Crude oil$0.658$0.210-$0.448
17. Refined products$0.334$0.193-$0.241
18. Coal$0.090$0.016-$0.074
Subtotal – Energy$1.096$0.581-$0.515
Total of 1.-18.$9.731$9.339-$0.392

Conclusion

The Trump Administration has had an aggressive program over the last several years to address perceived serious problems in our bilateral relationship with China. The Phase I Agreement was viewed as a down payment with the more challenging issues still on the table to be negotiated in a phase 2 agreement. There is no sign that Phase 2 negotiations have started. The history of U.S.-China consultations has been a great many promises of change by China and relatively little action by China to address U.S. concerns.

It is a positive that a number of the specific changes China has agreed to in the Phase I Agreement have been implemented to date. The U.S. has also made modifications it agreed to make in the Phase I Agreement. But the core issue for the Trump Administration is to see if its different approach to China can achieve meaningfully greater reciprocity in our trade relationship with China. That has been the justification for the large tariff increases on large parts of Chinese exports — getting long overdue changes to Chinese actions that harm American businesses and workers and obtain greater market access to the Chinese market.

Through April, U.S. trade data don’t show meaningful expansion of exports to China despite the commitments contained in Annex 6.1 to the Agreement. Indeed, U.S. exports are down sharply to China (U.S. imports from China are down sharply as well).

Despite the ongoing bilateral differences and actions causing a continuation of tensions between the two largest economies in the world, improving bilateral trade to a more reciprocal level would be in both countries’ interest. With China having recovered from COVID-19 constraints and with the U.S.having started its reopening process, the coming months will reveal whether the Agreement represents a further lost opportunity or a sea change in trade flows.

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.

Conclusion

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.