The two largest economies in the world view each other as competitors and potential adversaries. With significantly different political and economic systems and ideologies, the United States and China have had different perspectives on commitments and obligations undertaken in the economic sphere.
Specifically, the United States has viewed its bilateral trade negotiations with China and the later conclusion of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) as having created a commitment by China to continue on market-based reforms with the eventual conversion of the Chinese economy into a market-economy consistent with the basic rules of the WTO. There have been high level dialogues between the two countries for years with a feeling in the U.S. that repeated commitments by China to fulfill commitments have not been honored and that the bilateral relationship had growing serious problems.
China has had a different view of the world and its obligations to other countries through its joining the WTO. Reforms continued for a while but were replaced with a growing focus on state direction, state investment and heavy subsidization of a widespread number of sectors. China has viewed the United States as attempting to prevent its economic growth and global role and as not respecting its “right” to view itself as a developing country within the WTO and hence to have fewer obligations than a developed country.
Trump Administration changes approach
Under the Trump Administration, the United States has taken a more aggressive approach to dealing with what it perceives as distortions in economic competition and lack of meaningful reciprocity in the bilateral trade relationship. The U.S. has also looked at bilateral and multilateral approaches to address the problems it perceives China has created and is creating with the functioning of the global trading system.
Bilaterally, the U.S. has conducted its 301 investigation on a host of longstanding concerns of the U.S. business community on Chinese policies and practices. The adverse findings from the USTR investigation has led to the U.S. imposing additional tariffs on Chinese goods when resolution of the underlying issues was not achieved followed by retaliation by China and a series of additional rounds of more tariffs and more retaliation. The U.S. and China did engage in negotiations to see if they could resolve the underlying concerns of the United States. A phase 1 agreement was signed in January 2020, with a phase 2 process supposed to have commenced by May.
At the same time, the United States has pursued reform at the WTO (1) to address longstanding and bipartisan concerns with the WTO dispute settlement system, (2) to address rule changes to address some of the distortions that flow from China’s nonmarket economy, (3) to modify the self-selection nature of which Members are “developing” and (4) to improve transparency.
On transparency, many countries are not current on the various notification requirements, but major concerns have existed with China and India in terms of the number and dollar value of subsidy programs that are not being reported in their notifications to the WTO.
Some of the reforms of interest to the United States are being pursued as well by others, such as the EU and Japan on state-invested companies and industrial subsidies and various other countries on transparency.
But the WTO has been struggling to achieve forward movement on many issues of importance to different Members in part due to lack of consensus on issues and a lack of leadership/coordination among major players.
COVID-19 Complicates the Bilateral Relationship
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the situation for the WTO and for U.S.-China relations both because of the global reach of the health problem resulting in reduced functionality of the Missions in Geneva and the current inability to hold face-to-face meetings and the widespread use of export restraints on medical goods (including personal protection equipment like masks, gloves, shields, gowns, etc.) as demand in nations with significant number of infections has grossly exceeded existing inventories and production capabilities both in country and globally.
In terms of U.S.-China relations, the lack of complete transparency by the Chinese in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, some slowness of action by the World Health Organization, and both missteps on testing and slowness of initial action within the United States (and resulting massive unemployment, costs to the economy and multiple trillion dollar government response) has added finger pointing on the pandemic to the already tense bilateral relations. It has also resulted in the U.S. distrusting the WHO and temporarily suspending U.S. funding for the organization.
With the collapse in global trade, the pandemic has also made it far less likely that China will honor its increased import commitments from the U.S. in 2020 as contained in the Phase 1 Agreement. See U.S.-China Phase I Agreement – some progress on structural changes; far behind on trade in goods and services, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/12/u-s-china-phase-i-agreement-some-progress-on-structural-changes-far-behind-on-trade-in-goods-and-services/. That said, the U.S. continues to identify important advances being made at least in agriculture with China. See 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.
On trade, the pandemic has crippled the economies of many countries with the resulting declines in imports and exports in the March-April time frame and likely going forward for some period, though China as the first country through the outbreak and a major producer of medical goods actually saw increased overall exports to the world in April.
United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China
Earlier this week, the White House forwarded to Congress a document required by the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China. On the trade/economic front, the paper repeats the concerns that the Administration has laid out in other documents most of which are summarized above (not including the COVID-19 issues). The U.S. views challenges from China to three broad areas — (1) economic challenges (largely failure to continue reforms to become a market economy, failure to honor commitments made to the US, use of predatory practices, insistence on being a developing country, etc.); (2) challenges to U.S. values; and (3) security challenges. The link to the document is here and the text is embedded below. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/U.S.-Strategic-Approach-to-The-Peoples-Republic-of-China-Report-5.20.20.pdf.U.S.-Strategic-Approach-to-The-Peoples-Republic-of-China-Report-5.20.20
Challenges for the WTO
The WTO remains able to move forward where issues are limited to a subset (the “willing”) as progress on e-commerce talks would support. But in a consensus based system, distrust between major players will paralyze large parts of any agenda. Indeed, with the large number of WTO Members (164) at various stages of economic development, there will almost always be a wide divergence of views on any issue. In such a situation, leadership and cooperation among major economies become important to develop a consensus. So it is hard to see how the WTO advances a reform agenda without improved relations between the organization’s two largest Members.
With the recently added challenge for the WTO of selecting a new Director-General, the sour relationship the U.S. and China will likely make finding a candidate who would be supported by a consensus of the Membership that much harder, suggesting at a minimum a process that takes the full six-month time for selection (versus any hoped for expeditious resolution in light of DG Azevedo’s departure at the end of August) and perhaps extended time lines. If the selection process breaks down into highly polarized camps (the existing procedures were developed to try to prevent such an outcome), the ability to move forward the WTO’s reform and existing negotiating agenda will be delayed by certainly months and perhaps longer.
At a time when the world is struggling with a global pandemic which continues to cause huge health challenges to many countries in the world and has devastated the global economy at least temporarily, costing tens of millions of workers jobs, and likely closing hundreds of thousand of businesses around the world while requiring government financial support that will likely exceed ten trillion dollars, there is an unfortunate lack of global cooperation between the major economic players and distrust at least from the U.S. of multilateral institutions viewed as either ineffective to deal with China’s economic system or not operating in an unbiased manner.
A major part of the challenge flows from the distrust that exists between the world’s two largest economies that precedes the pandemic but that has been worsened by the pandemic’s development and handling. The two countries have different economic systems which are essentially non-compatible, have different political systems and different ideologies and view each other as competitors and potential adversaries.
In a change of approach, the United States has decided to take a more aggressive approach to achieve reciprocity in fact with China and not merely on paper or from spoken promises. The change in approach has resulted in the U.S. acting unilaterally in certain situations. China has appeared unable to understand or agree with the concerns raised by the U.S. (and others) and harbors a belief that the real motive behind U.S. actions is “to keep China down”. This mutual distrust has resulted in both hard feelings and an inability to achieve cooperation on a large number of trade, economic and other issues.
The current U.S.-China relationship increases the problems for many multilateral organizations, but certainly for the WTO both in terms of selecting a new Director-General and in developing WTO reforms and moving ongoing negotiations forward.
Look for a challenging second half of 2020.