State Ownership and State Investment

Continued Stress in U.S.-China relations — Reduced Cooperation in Multilateral Fora

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.

U.S. concerns

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 concerns

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, That said, the U.S. continues to identify important advances being made at least in agriculture with China. See

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.


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.

Oil and gas sector suffers declining demand, collapsing prices, expanded state involvement — skewed economic results damage much of the global economy

The United States and many other countries view the World Trade Organization as the forum for global trade rules that support market economies. One of the challenges for the WTO going forward is what to do with the important Members whose economic systems are not anchored in market economic principles. While China is the most frequently mentioned WTO Member whose economic system is causing massive disruptions for market economies, there are other countries with important sectors that are state-owned, controlled and directed. The United States, European Union and Japan have been working on proposals for modifications of WTO rules to address distortions flowing from massive industrial subsidies and state controlled sectors that do not operate on market principles.

While WTO reform is not likely to see serious engagement by WTO Members before the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, the sharp contraction of economic activity in many countries is highlighting the importance for WTO Members actually addressing the role of the state in industry and rule changes needed to avoid the massive distortions that state involvement too often created.

Oil and Gas as an Example

Few industrial sectors have as much state ownership and control as the oil and gas sector. While there are countries with privately owned producers, much of the world operates with producers that are state owned or state controlled. Since the 1960s, a number of countries have engaged in cartel-like activity to collectively address production levels to achieve desired price levels. While many of these countries are part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”), OPEC meets with other countries as well in an effort to achieve production and pricing levels. Current OPEC members include Algeria, Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

The activity has resulted in artificial pricing levels in export markets as compared to prices in home markets of OPEC members and periodic price shocks based on collective action. Large price increases in the 1970s led to high levels of inflation and rapid changes to manufacturing operations in some countries.

  1. Economic contraction as countries struggle to limit spread of the coronavirus

There has been a sharp contraction in demand for petroleum products in 2020 as countries have shut down movement of people in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. Air travel has been decimated in many parts of the world and there are significant reductions in automobile travel. Manufacturing has also seen significant reductions. The contractions have resulted not only in national reductions in use of petroleum products but also international reductions both directly (reduced air traffic and ship traffic) and because of disruptions to supply chains which have reduced downstream production.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a staff research report on April 21, 2020 entitled “Cascading Economic Impacts of the COVID-19 Outbreak in China” which reviews information on the wide range of economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic as felt in the U.S. The report includes a section entitled “Turmoil in Energy Markets” which states,

“The standstill in Chinese production and halt in flows of goods and people has drastically depressed Chinese demand for energy products such as crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG), adding pressure to an oil supply glut that had materialized at the end of 2019.99 In December of 2019, Institute of International Finance economist Garbis Iradian had forecasted a supply glut, pointing to high output from Brazil, Canada, and the United States.100 The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated this challenging outlook. As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reported in April 2020: ‘The largest ever monthly decline in petroleum demand in China occurred in February 2020.’101 Chinese oil demand ‘shrank by a massive 3.2 million barrels per day’ over the prior year.102 Research by OPEC forecasted China’s 2020 demand for oil will decrease by 0.83 million barrels per day over 2019.103 As the largest oil importer,104 Chinese oil consumption has a significant impact on global demand. In 2019, China accounted for 14 percent of global oil demand and more than 80 percent of growth in oil demand.105 Following the outbreak in China, the OPEC Joint Technical Committee held a meeting on February 8 to recommend new and continued oil production adjustments in light of “the negative impact on oil demand” due to depressed economic activity, “particularly in the transportation, tourism, and industry sectors, particularly in China.”106 In LNG markets, on February 10, Caixin reported Chinese state-owned oil giant China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) requested a reduction of an unknown quantity in LNG shipments, invoking a “force majeure” clause due to COVID-19.107 S&P Global Platts, an energy and commodities analysis group, stated China’s LNG imports in January and February fell more than 6 percent over the same period in 2019.108

Prices have also dropped in this period. OPEC’s reference price index fell from $66.48 per barrel in December 2019 to $55.49 per barrel in February 2020, a drop of 19.8 percent.109 These price cuts are causing financially strapped* U.S. energy producers to cut back investment in oil and gas projects as profits erode. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the current drop in oil prices will lead to lower U.S. crude oil production beginning in the third quarter of 2020.110″

The complete report is embedded below (footnotes 99-110 can be found on page 22 of the report).


2. State-owned or controlled oil companies create further crisis

With a sharp contraction in oil demand, one would expect falling oil prices and reductions in global production over time. OPEC efforts to achieve reductions in production amongst themselves and Russia didn’t work out with Russia walking out of talks to reduce production to prevent further price declines. Russia and Saudi Arabia then engaged in a price war which resulted in further sharp price reductions in March and early April, large surpluses of oil in the market, with dwindling storage capacity for surplus production. See, e.g., (and sources cited therein). Below is a graph of crude oil prices from 2015 through April 2020.

3. April Agreement to Reduce Production Beginning in May and June 2020

The United States, concerned with the collapse of oil prices and the effects on U.S. producers and oil/gas field companies, engaged in outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Russia to seek a solution. OPEC members, Russia and many others (including the United States) agreed to global production reductions of close to 10 million barrels/day beginning in May and carrying through June, with smaller reductions for later periods, in an effort to bring about balance between supply and demand. See, e.g., April 12, 2020, AP article, “OPEC, oil nations agree to nearly 10M barrel cut amid virus,” The U.S. Department of Energy has a webpage that reviews statements by members of Congress and others on the OPEC+ deal.

Because the agreement kicks in at the beginning of May, the continued production and reductions in available storage for oil resulted in further declines in oil prices, with prices on April 20 going negative for the first time in history. Prices have recovered somewhat in the last several days.;

WTO Challenges

Joint action during the global COVID-19 pandemic may be understandable and in keeping with the resort to extraordinary measures by governments during the crisis to preserve health and economies. Nonetheless, the extraordinary distortions that flow to global commerce from joint government activity limiting production of oil and gas products or establishing minimum prices for export have been ignored within the GATT and now the WTO for decades. This is unfortunate as the distortions affect both competing producers of the products in question in other countries and also downstream users and consumers more broadly. The overall distortions over time are certainly in the trillions of dollars.

GATT Art. XX(g) permits governments to enforce measures “relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources if such measures are made effective in conjunction with restrictions on domestic production or consumption.” While there have been some cases where Art. XX(g) has been examined, actions by OPEC or OPEC+ countries to limit production (and hence exports) have never been challenged.

While there are national antitrust laws in many countries, such laws (such as those in the United States) don’t make government interference in the economy or government restrictions on export actionable despite the harm to consumers and to downstream manufacturers.

In a consensus based system like the WTO, the likelihood of obtaining improved rules on state-owned or state-invested companies or to restrict governments’ ability to unilaterally or jointly restrict production and exports seems implausible. This is especially true on oil and gas with Saudi Arabia and Russia as WTO Members. The US-EU-Japan initiative hasn’t yet fleshed out possible rule changes for state entities, so one may see some efforts in the coming years that could be useful if accepted by the full membership. But if there is to be meaningful WTO reform, agreeing on rules for the actions of governments that affect production and trade in goods and services is clearly of great importance. Without such rules, the WTO will not actually support market economies in critical ways.

Modifying antitrust laws is the other option, but one which legislators have been unwilling to address over the last fifty years. It is not clear that there are current champions of such modifications in the United States or in other major countries.


There are many sectors of economies that are being seriously adversely affected by efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Governments are taking extraordinary actions to try to prevent their economies from collapsing under the strains of social distancing.

The oil and gas sector is one where there has been significant negative volume and price effects. Unfortunately the extent of the negative volume and price effects is driven in large part by the actions of governments who are preventing the global market for these products from functioning correctly, just as government actions have interfered in the functioning of these markets for the last fifty-sixty years.

The recent agreement to slash global production by nearly 10 million barrels per day was needed in light of the extensive government interference that has characterized the market and the actions by Russia and Saudi Arabia in March and early April.

More importantly, the long-term government involvement and interference with the functioning of the sector should cause trade negotiators and legislators to be looking at how to reform the WTO and/or modify national laws to prevent government ownership, control or cartel-like actions from distorting trade flows and economies. The need is pressing, but don’t hold your breath for action in the coming years.