China’s trade restrictive actions against Australia — what they say about China’s compliance with notification requirements and the importance of market-economy conditions in global trade

One of the challenges companies and trading partners of China have faced in having the global rules of trade actually honored by China has been the informal actions of China’s government at the central, provincial and local level which result in clear violations of WTO obligations as well as the fear of retaliation companies trading with China may face if specific examples of non-compliant actions are raised bilaterally or through dispute settlement.

In yesterday’s Global Business Dialogue TTALK entitled “China and Aussie Cotton,” the challenges that Australia’s cotton producers are facing in China are reviewed including apparent verbally communicated requirements to Chinese cotton purchasers not to buy Australian cotton. See Global Business Dialogue TTALK of October 22, 2020, “China and Aussie Cotton,”—-TTALK-FOR-OCTOBER-22.html?soid=1101547782913&aid=L4XRKbnPF_A. The post has links to various sources for the concerns raised in the post.

A good summary paragraph from the TTALK piece follows:

“All of that said, this has been a tense year for China-Australia trade, as China has taken aim at one Australian export after another to signal its displeasure with Australian policies. Australian barley, beef, and wine were hit with import restrictions earlier. Last week it was coal and cotton – what might be called Australia’s black and white exports to China. This time, though, China’s restricted policies were not in black and white. They were instead oral instruction to Chinese buyers of those products not to buy from Australia.”

As the WTO Members consider reforms needed to improve the functioning of the global trading system, the challenges Australian producers are facing in having access to the Chinese market should help inform some of the critical challenges and needs.

Obviously, there are transparency requirements on all WTO Members on actions taken that affect access to a Member’s market. It is unlikely that any of the non-written actions, policies or practices taken by the Chinese government at the central, provincial or local level that affect foreign goods or services or foreign investors are notified to the WTO. If so, this is a major problem in the third leg of the WTO structure – notifications and oversight. While similar problems may exist for other WTO Members, the Australia example is a clear instance where China has discriminated against products of a trading partner without formal notification or justification.

Similarly, the Australian example raises concerns about China using the influence of the state to distort trade outcomes. This is, of course, the core concern of the United States, Japan, Brazil and others that the global trading system is premised on market-economy conditions within WTO Members and that systems like that of China don’t fit well under existing global rules. The state directing companies not to purchase commodities like cotton from foreign suppliers is inconsistent with such market-economy conditions.

For any reform initiative to permit the WTO to ensure conditions of fair trade in the global market, state actors need to sit out the vast majority of trade actions involved in the production, sale, import and export of goods and services. There have been proposals to date to address some of the notification deficiencies that exist, but nothing really focused on informal actions of states. Similarly, the U.S., Japan and the EU have also identified a series of issues (industrial subsidies, forced technology transfer) where the existing rules of the WTO are inadequate to address some of the distortions caused by economic systems like that employed by China. It is unclear that the areas being considered deal with some of the distortions flagged in the Australian case or the issue of threats or acts of retaliation by a WTO Member against companies engaged in trading with the Member or who have invested in the Member. While China is certainly a Member where companies often complain privately about retaliation or threats, China is not alone in that regard.

Without serious reform to address these and other existing problems as well as update the rules to reflect 21st century trading realities, countries will need to increasingly look outside the WTO for tools to address the distortions created.

WTO Secretariat Information Note on COVID-19 and Agriculture

On Wednesday, August 26, the WTO Secretariat put out an Information Note entitled “COVID-19 and Agriculture: A Story of Resilience”. It is one in an impressive line of information notes providing useful information on how COVID-19 is affecting global trade in goods and services. The full array of information notes published to date can be found on the WTO webpage, Wednesday’s Information Note is embedded below.


The note focuses on the fact that trade in agricultural goods have fared better than total trade in goods during the pandemic. The Secretariat, at the time of preparing the Information Note, had access to trade data through April 2020 and for May 2020 for some countries. A key summary paragraph from the note states:

“Trade in agricultural products has been more resilient than overall trade. This reflects the essential nature of food and the resulting relative income-inelasticity of demand for it, as well as the fact that most agricultural trade (notably cereals and oilseeds) takes place in bulk marine shipments that have not been subject to major disruptions. While overall merchandise trade fell sharply in the first half of 2020, agricultural and food exports increased by 2.5 per cent during the first quarter of the year compared to the same period in 2019, with an increase of 3.3 per cent in March, followed by a 0.6 per cent increase in April, although the preliminary data for May indicate a small decrease (-1.3 per cent) compared to 2019.2

“2 Data for May 2020 were available for a limited set of 64 countries at the time of writing.”

Importantly, while some governments imposed export restrictions on some agricultural products early in response to COVID-19, some of those restrictions have been lifted and there have been other initiatives to liberalize trade in agriculture.

However, the note reviews the challenges for many people to get adequate food despite food stocks and good harvests. A prior August 15 post of mine reviewed the challenges facing many nations in accessing adequate food supplies in 2020. See August 15, 2020,  Food security and COVID-19 – how World Trade Organization Members could fill a pressing need,

The Information Note’s conclusion provides a note of caution on agricultural trade despite the greater resilience of such trade over other trade in goods:

“The COVID-19 crisis has had a major impact on the global economy and trade. Countries are still fighting the pandemic, and its repercussions for food supply chains are still unfolding. While agricultural trade has proven more resilient than trade in other goods owing to the essential nature of food products, additional disruptions to supply chains could start to undermine this resilience, with damaging consequences.

“There is currently no supply-related reason why the ongoing health crisis should turn into a food crisis. However, disruptions to food supply chains constitute a risk for global food security. Governments’ trade policy choices will play a major role in shaping how the situation evolves.

“Transparency remains crucial for food security. Incomplete or insufficient information creates uncertainty that, in turn, leads to sub-optimal policy decisions. Sharing timely information on trade-related measures, as well as making information available on production, consumption, stocks and food prices, would help markets function efficiently and contribute to ensuring global food security.”

U.S. example on agricultural exports suggests greater contraction in 2nd quarter of 2020

U.S. trade data are available through June 2020. At least for the United States, U.S. domestic exports of agricultural products (HS Chapters 01-24) through June 2020 were off from 2019 levels (which were themselves below 2018 levels). On a monthly basis, the contraction worsens month by month after February as the below data on U.S. domestic exports of agricultural goods show (exports are FAS values in billions of US $):

1st half 2018$69.3
1st half 2019$65.6
1st half 2020$64.0
% change 2019-2020-2.50%
% change Jan. 2019-2020+0.13%
% change Feb. 2019-2020+5.04%
% change March 2019-2020-1.46%
% change April 2019-2020-3.95%
% change May 2019-2020-7.17%
% change June 2019-2020-7.67%

U.S. domestic exports of agricultural goods show dramatic differences in trends in 2020 based on the 2-digit HS chapter involved. Chapter 02, meat and edible meat offal, increased in the first half of 2020 by 8.4%; Chapter 04, dairy produce and other products, increased 17.27%Chapter 10, cereals, increased by 1.13%; Chapter 15, animal fats and oils and their cleavage products, increased 23.19%; Chapter 23, residue and waste from the food industry, prepared animal feed, increased 2.43%; the other nineteen Chapters showed declines up to 15.17%.

For the United States, the U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement appears likely to improve U.S. agricultural exports in the last months of 2020 and hence may change the U.S. trade trend for agricultural goods in the third and fourth quarters. See August 8, 2020,  U.S.-China Phase 1 trade agreement – review of U.S. domestic exports through June 2020,

But the above data for the U.S. suggests that global agricultural trade may be harder hit in the second quarter than the Secretariat Information Note tracks through April (and for partial data for May). All of which simply says the Information Note’s conclusion that transparency and accuracy and timeliness of data are critical at the present time to prevent the COVID-19 health crisis from becoming a food security crisis of even greater proportions than is already projected by the World Food Programme.

Recent World Bank and OECD forecasts show deeper 2020 economic contraction, need for increased global cooperation

The year 2020 is now forecast to result in the sharpest economic contraction since World War II. This is the first recession in 150 years flowing entirely from a health pandemic. With data collected over the last five and a half months (Dec. 31 – June 13), confirmed COVID-19 cases are more than 7.625 million globally and total deaths are more than 425,000 (with both numbers viewed as significantly understated). The global trend line on new cases continues to rise as of June 13 while the number of reported deaths has declined from its peak and stabilized at a high rate.

The International Monetary Fund’s forecast for 2020 went from affirmative growth at the beginning of the year to a decline of 3.5% in April. A recent report from the World Bank now projects global GDP contraction of 5.2% while a June OECD report shows estimates of global GDP contraction of 6.0% if COVID-19 is limited to a “single-hit” scenario and 7.6% contraction if there is a second wave of COVID-19 cases in 2020. See World Bank, Global Economic Prospects, June 2020 at 4, Table 1.1, Real GDP,; OECD Economic Outlook, June 2020, at 13, Table 1.1,

The OECD outlook data show for a single pass of COVID-19, declines for the world at 6.0%, the G20 at 5.7%, OECD at 7.5%, the U.S. at 7.3%, the Euro area at 9.1%, Japan at 6.0%, non-OECD at 4.6%, China at 2.6%, India at 3.7%, and Brazil at 7.4%. Id at 13, Table 1.1. The projections if there is a second wave of COVID-19 cases are significantly worse for all countries.

The OECD’s projection for the U.S. is for greater contraction than the recent estimate from the Federal Reserve of 6.5% in 2020. See, e.g.,

The World Bank’s estimates for 2020 are similar for some areas and lower for the United States (-6.1%) but shows China growing versus the OECD projected contraction. Here are the data for 2020 for selected countries from the World Bank publication:

United States -6.1%

Euro Area -9.1%

Japan -6.1%

China +1.0%

Indonesia 0.0%

Thailand -6.0%

Russia -6.0%

Turkey -3.8%

Poland -4.2%

Brazil -8.0%

Mexico -7.5%

Argentina -7.3%

Saudi Arabia -3.8%

Iran -5.3%

Egypt +3.0%

India -3.2%

Pakistan -2.6%

Bangladesh +1.6%

Nigeria -3.2%

South Africa -7.1%

Angola -4.0%

The World Bank and OECD also have different levels of trade contraction projected for 2020 in their June publications. The World Bank’s projection is for a contraction of 13.4% (page 4) while the OECD’s projection is for a contraction of 9.5% in 2020 (pae 13). These projections compare to the latest WTO projections of contractions between 13% and 32%. April 8, 2020, WTO press release, Trade set to pluge as COVID-19 pandemic upends global economy,

Foreward to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects

The World Bank’s recent report in its foreward by the Bank’s President David Malpass provides a stark summary of the challenges for many emerging markets and developing economies and the efforts of the World Bank in finding solutions. The foreward (pages xiii – xiv) is reproduced below:


“The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shutdown in advanced economies and other parts of the globe have disrupted billions of lives and are jeopardizing decades of development progress.

“This edition of the Global Economic Prospects assesses the impacts of the pandemic and analyzes possible courses and outcomes. It presents clear actions needed by the global community and national policymakers—to limit the harm, recover, and rebuild better and stronger than before.

“The report describes a global economy suffering a devastating blow. Our baseline forecast envisions the deepest global recession since World War II. The report also includes an exhaustive analysis of the outlook for emerging market and developing economies, many of which are now fighting on two fronts—containing the domestic outbreak and its consequences while coping with the economic spillovers from the deep recessions in advanced economies.

“Looking a layer deeper, the report investigates the depth and breadth of the economic and humanitarian storm. The COVID-19 recession is the first since 1870 to be triggered solely by a pandemic. The speed and depth with which it has struck suggests the possibility of a sluggish recovery that may require policymakers to consider additional interventions. For many emerging market and developing countries, however, effective financial support and mitigation measures are particularly hard to achieve because a substantial share of employment is in informal sectors.

“Beyond the staggering economic impacts, the pandemic will also have severe and long-lasting socio-economic impacts that may well weaken long-term growth prospects—the plunge in investment because of elevated uncertainty, the erosion of human capital from the legions of unemployed, and the potential for ruptures of trade and supply linkages.

“The World Bank Group is committed to helping alleviate financing breakdowns from the COVID-19 crisis in ways that work toward a more resilient recovery. Some examples include expanding and increasing the coverage of safety net programs, providing trade finance, and supporting the working capital needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. In the broad COVID-19 response for the poorest nations, World Bank Group resources are being scaled up dramatically and debt service payments by official bilateral creditors were suspended on May 1, with comparable treatment expected by commercial creditors.

“Yet these steps toward financing and liquidity will not be enough. Even before the pandemic, development for people in the world’s poorest countries was slow to raise their incomes, enhance living standards, or narrow inequality. The pandemic and economic shutdown in advanced economies and elsewhere are hitting the poor and vulnerable the hardest – through illnesses, job and income losses, food supply disruptions, school closures and lower remittance flows.

“Thus, policy makers face unprecedented challenges from the health, macroeconomic and social effects of the pandemic. To limit the harm, it is important to secure core public services, maintain a private sector and get money directly to people. This will allow a quicker return to business creation and sustainable development after the pandemic has passed. During this mitigation period, countries should focus on targeted support to households and essential public and private sector services; and remain vigilant to counter potential financial disruptions.

“During the recovery period, countries will need to calibrate the withdrawal of public support and should be attentive to broader development challenges. The Global Economic Prospects report discusses the importance of allowing an orderly allocation of new capital toward sectors that are productive in the new post-pandemic structures that emerge. To succeed in this, countries will need reforms that allow capital and labor to adjust relatively fast—by speeding the resolution of disputes, reducing regulatory barriers, and reforming the costly subsidies, monopolies and protected state-owned enterprises that have slowed development.

“To make future economies more resilient, many countries will need systems that can build and retain more human and physical capital during the recovery—using policies that reflect and encourage the post-pandemic need for new types of jobs, businesses and governance systems.

“Emerging market and developing economies are devoting more public resources to critical health care and support for livelihoods during the shutdown, adding to the urgency of their allowing and attracting more private sector investment. This makes the financing and building of productive infrastructure one of the hardest-to-solve development challenges in the post-pandemic recovery.

“The transparency of all government financial commitments, debt-like instruments and investments is a key step in creating an attractive investment climate and could make substantial progress this year. Faster advances in digital connectivity are also necessary and should get a vital boost from the pandemic, which heightened the value of teleworking capabilities, digital information, and broad connectivity. Digital financial services are playing a transformative role in allowing new entrants into the economy and making it easier for governments to provide rapidly expandable, needs-based cash transfers.

“This edition of the Global Economic Prospects describes a grave near-term outlook. The speed and strength of the recovery will depend on the effectiveness of the support programs governments and the international community put in place now; and, critically, on what policymakers do to respond to the new environment. The World Bank Group is committed to seeking much better outcomes for people in emerging market and developing countries, especially the poor. During the crisis, we call on policymakers to act fast and forcefully: our interventions should be no less powerful than the crisis itself.”

Editorial by Chief Economist to OECD June Economic Outlook

Echoing the challenging times ahead in 2020, the OECD’s Chief Economist Laurence Boon reviews the tightrope that OECD countries face before a vaccine is available. The editorial is reprinted below (pages 7-9)


After the lockdown, a tightrope walk toward recovery

The spread of Covid-19 has shaken people’s lives around the globe in an extraordinary way, threatening health, disrupting economic activity, and hurting wellbeing and jobs. Since our last Economic Outlook update, in early March, multiple virus outbreaks evolved into a global pandemic, moving too fast across the globe for most healthcare systems to cope with effectively. To reduce the spread of the virus and buy time to strengthen healthcare systems, governments had to shut down large segments of economic activity. At the time of writing, the pandemic has started to recede in many countries, and activity has begun to pick up. The health, social and economic impact of the outbreak could have been considerably worse without the dedication of healthcare and other essential workers who continued to serve the public, putting their own health at risk in doing so.

Governments and central banks have put in place wide-ranging policies to protect people and businesses from the consequences of the sudden stop in activity. Economic activity has collapsed across the OECD during shutdowns, by as much as 20 to 30% in some countries, an extraordinary shock. Borders have been closed and trade has plummeted. Simultaneously, governments implemented quick, large and innovative support measures to cushion the blow, subsidising workers and firms. Social and financial safety nets were strengthened at record speed. As financial stress surged, central banks took forceful and timely action, deploying an array of conventional and unconventional policies above and beyond those used in the Global Financial Crisis, preventing the health and economic crisis from spilling over into a financial one.

As long as no vaccine or treatment is widely available, policymakers around the world will continue to walk on a tightrope. Physical distancing and testing, tracking, tracing and isolating (TTTI) will be the main instruments to fight the spread of the virus. TTTI is indispensable for economic and social activities to resume. But those sectors affected by border closures and those requiring close personal contact, such as tourism, travel, entertainment, restaurants and accommodation will not resume as before. TTTI may not even be enough to prevent a second outbreak of the virus.

Faced with this extraordinary uncertainty, this Economic Outlook presents two possible scenarios: one where the virus continues to recede and remains under control, and one where a second wave of rapid contagion erupts later in 2020. These scenarios are by no means exhaustive, but they help frame the field of possibilities and sharpen policies to walk such uncharted grounds. Both scenarios are sobering, as economic activity does not and cannot return to normal under these circumstances. By the end of 2021, the loss of income exceeds that of any previous recession over the last 100 years outside wartime, with dire and long-lasting consequences for people, firms and governments.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift from ‘great integration’ to ‘great fragmentation’. Additional trade and investment restrictions have sprung up. Many borders are closed across large regions and will likely remain so, at least in part, as long as sizeable virus outbreaks continue. Economies are diverging, depending on when and to what extent they were hit by the virus, the preparedness of their healthcare system, their sectoral specialisation and their fiscal capacity to address the shock. Emerging-market economies have also been shaken by the crisis. Commodity prices have plummeted. Large capital outflows, plummeting remittances, weaker healthcare systems and a large share of informal workers have threatened their health, economic and social resilience. Everywhere, the lockdown has also exacerbated inequality across workers, with those able to telework generally highly qualified, while the least qualified and youth are often on the front line, unable to work or laid off, with the effects further compounded by unequal access to social protection. Private debt levels are uncomfortably high in some countries, and business failure and bankruptcy risks loom large.

Extraordinary policies will be required to walk the tightrope towards recovery. Even if growth does surge in some sectors, overall activity will remain muted for a while. Governments can provide the safety nets that allow people and firms to adjust, but cannot uphold private sector activity, employment and wages for a prolonged period. Capital and workers from impaired sectors and businesses will have to move towards expanding ones. Such transitions are difficult, and rarely happen fast enough to prevent the number of failing firms from rising and a sustained period of unemployment. Governments will need to adapt support and accompany the transition, allowing fast restructuring processes for firms, with no stigma for entrepreneurs, providing income for workers in between jobs, training for those laid off and transitioning to new jobs, and social protection for the most vulnerable. We have previously called for a rise in public investment in digital and green technologies to promote long-term sustainable growth and lift demand in the short term. This is even more urgent today with economies having been hit so hard.

Today’s recovery policies will shape economic and social prospects in the coming decade. Ultra-accommodative monetary policies and higher public debt are necessary and will be accepted as long as economic activity and inflation are depressed, and unemployment is high. However, debt-financed spending should be well targeted to support the most vulnerable and the investment necessary for a transition to a more robust economy. Public support needs to be transparent and fair. Corporate support from governments must come with transparent rules, with private bond and equity holders taking a loss when government steps in, so that their rewards for taking risks are not excessive. Improving employer-employee relationships should accompany ongoing public support for workers and firms, paving the way for stronger social cohesion and ultimately a stronger and more sustainable recovery.

The recovery will not gain steam without more confidence, which will not fully recover without global cooperation. Confidence needs to be boosted both at the national and international levels. Household saving rates have soared in most OECD countries, with high uncertainty and rising unemployment holding back consumption. Trade disruptions and the associated threats to supply chains also impede the necessary reduction in uncertainty for investment to resume. Global cooperation to tackle the virus with a treatment and vaccine and a broader resumption of multilateral dialogue will be key for reducing doubt and unlock economic momentum. The international community should ensure that when a vaccine or treatment is available it can be distributed rapidly worldwide. Otherwise the threat will stay. Likewise, resuming a constructive dialogue on trade would lift business confidence and the appetite for investment.

Governments must seize this opportunity to engineer a fairer and more sustainable economy, making competition and regulation smarter, modernising government taxes, spending, and social protection. Prosperity comes from dialogue and cooperation. This holds true at the national and global level.”

With a lack of Global Cooperation, the WTO is limited to a monitoring of actions by Members and providing transparency

Many of the challenges facing countries, their companies, workers and citizens are not trade related as reviewed in the World Bank and OECD excerpts provided above. But trade does play a role and for many countries a central role in terms of access to needed medical goods and other items. The WTO, as the GATT before it, offers significant leeway to Members to impose export restraints during health emergencies and in other situations. Where there has been a lack of global planning and preparedness for a pandemic, as has been the case with COVID-19, the world finds itself in a situation where demand for medical goods far exceeds supply for extended periods of time for different countries. The desired trade approach of keeping markets open sounds good and is critical for countries with import needs but is typically ignored by many countries that have production capacity and/or inventories, at least temporarily, as all governments look to protect their own populations first.

The G20 has announced some trade actions they are pursuing to ensure trade remains open, although important issues like limiting export restraints and promoting import liberalization are hortatory in nature reflecting the fact that many G20 members have taken and some maintain export restraints or are not supportive of other than ad hoc liberalization initiatives that are necessarily other than temporary.

Two recent speeches by Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff review what the WTO has been able to do to date in the pandemic (limited to seeking notifications of actions by Members, publishing information on the same, developing a trade forecast), what WTO Members have proposed as potential WTO initiatives (to date proposals have been from mid-sized economies and are open for signature by other Members) and the opportunities and challenges for reform of the WTO moving forward. See DDG Wolff, “The challenges are not over”, June 5, 2020,; DDG Wolff, “There can be no permanent retreat from what has been created”, June 10, 2020,

The information collected by the WTO and posted on its website, the information notes on various trade topics affected by the pandemic, the efforts to interact with other multilateral organizations and with the business community are all helpful for Members and their constituents to understand what is happening in the trade environment and how the pandemic is affecting areas of trade, types of Members and so on.

It is also the case that initiatives proposed and actions taken by individual countries to improve the market environment, ensure greater market openness and speed availability of medical goods are helpful even if not embraced by the entirety of the WTO membership.

But there is little doubt that there is not the level of global cooperation nor the leadership from the major players to minimize the global fallout from the pandemic or to maximize the speed of the global recovery.

There is no obvious road ahead to greater cooperation or to the meaningful emergence of leadership by the majors in the remainder of 2020. Let’s hope that observation proves to be incorrect. The costs of failure to better cooperate and for the majors to lead in fact are likely unprecedented and will affect the lives of billions of people.