The U.S. Trade Deficit – Data for First Thirty-Three Months of the Trump Administration (2017-Sept. 2019)

The U.S. trade deficit has been at extraordinarily high levels for many years, having ranged from $766.6 to 818.0.billion/year during 2005-2008 (2nd term of President George W. Bush).  After a sharp contraction in trade during the 2009-2010 period as the country dealt with the great recession flowing from the financial crisis that started in 2008 (with resulting significantly lower trade deficits), trade deficits ran from $689.5 to $745.5 billion/year during the 2011-2016 years of President Obama’s tenure (2016 trade deficit was $735.3 billion).

President Trump has had a significant focus on trade issues during his presidency.  His Administration has attempted to address the chronic trade deficit the country has developed over the last fifty years through improved trade deals, aggressive enforcement of various trade laws and some domestic actions (regulations and taxation).  Despite these actions, the first two years and nine months of the Trump Administration saw a significant expansion of the trade deficit in 2017 ($793.4 billion) and 2018 ($874.8 billion) – an increase by 2018 of 18.97% over 2016 levels) – with a stabilization in the first nine months of 2019 (up 1.43% from the first nine months of 2018 at $647.6 billion).

A growth in the trade deficit during 2017-2019 reflects various causes including:  (1) continued economic growth in the U.S. and slower growth rates in much of the rest of the world; (2) a delay in the trade balance effects flowing from the Administration’s trade actions against China under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 and against many countries on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962; (3) retaliation by various trading partners for actions taken by the U.S.; and (4) shifts in currency values.

The huge trade deficit with China declined by $38.5 billion or by 12.77% in the first nine months of 2019 reflecting the large tariffs applied by the U.S. on huge parts of Chinese exports to the U.S. which exceeded the contraction in U.S. exports to China flowing from retaliation by the Chinese.  However, there was more than a $47.7 billion increase in the deficit from trade flows with other countries during the first nine months of 2019.  Below are some of the countries with whom the U.S. trade deficit has increased in the first three quarters of 2019 by more than $5.0 billion.  Data reflect the size of the increase in the U.S. trade deficit with the particular country: :

Country or Group of Countries Increase in U.S. Trade Deficit
9 months 2019
Mexico $17.0 billion
European Union (28) $12.0 billion
Vietnam $11.7 billion
Switzerland   $7.3 billion
Taiwan   $6.5 billion
Subtotal $54.5 billion

Vietnam and Taiwan could be in some significant part the result of shifting shipments from China to neighboring countries where Chinese or other producers have investments, where producers have found alternative sourcing or where there has been shipment of products from China which have been mislabeled as to origin.

Similarly, the large increase from Mexico may reflect in part a move back to Mexico or increased sourcing from Mexico for companies previously sourcing from China.    An UNCTAD Research Paper (No. 37) entitled “Trade and trade diversion effects of United States tariffs on China” released recently made similar findings for imports in the first half of 2019.  https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2569.  As noted in the Abstract to the paper (page 1):

“This paper finds that United States tariffs against China have resulted in a reduction in imports of the tariffed products by more than 25 percent. The analysis finds that China’s export losses in the United States have resulted in trade diversion effects to the advantage of Taiwan Province of China, Mexico, the European Union and Viet Nam among others. The analysis also finds that those effects have increased over time. The analysis finds some preliminary evidence that Chinese exporters may have started to bear part of the costs of the tariffs in the form of lower export prices. Overall, the results indicate that the United States tariffs on China are economically hurting both countries. United States losses are largely related to the higher prices for consumers, while China’s losses are related to significant export losses.”

The shift in trade balance for the mentioned countries and for the U.S. as a whole is explained in the following table which shows the change in U.S. total exports and in U.S. general imports during the first nine months of 2019 vs. the same period of 2018:

Country US Exports US Imports US Trade Balanace
China  -$15.2 BN  -$53.0 BN  +$47.7 BN
Mexico    -$4.3 BN +$12.8 BN   -$17.0 BN
European Union (28) +$14.0 BN +$26.0 BN   -$12.0 BN
Vietnam   +$1.0 BN +$12.7 BN   -$11.7 BN
Switzerland    -$4.5 BN   +$2.8 BN     -$7.3 BN
Taiwan   +$0.5 BN   +$7.0 BN     -$6.5 BN
Subtotal (Mex.-
Taiwan)
  +$6.7 BN +$61.3 BN   -$43.5 BN
From all countries =$15.2 BN    -$6.0 BN     -$9.2 BN

Thus, in the first nine months of 2019, US trade with China fell in both directions, with imports from China declining by $53.0 billion and U.S. total exports to China declining $15.2 billion.  Trade with Mexico and Switzerland saw declines in U.S. total exports to each country (-$4.3 billion and -$4.5 billion respectively) while imports from those countries into the U.S. increased (+$12.8 billion and +$2.8 billion).  For the European Union, Vietnam and Taiwan, the U.S. saw total exports increase, but at much slower amounts than the increase in U.S. imports from those countries.  

When looking at the 2-digit HS categories that saw the largest changes in the U.S. trade balance with China in 2019, the three largest improvements in the U.S. trade balance with China were in HS chapters 84, 85 and 94 dealing with nonelectrical equipment, electrical equipment and furniture respectively. The U.S. trade balance with China improved by $17.0 billion, $18.8 billion and $4.0 billion for these three chapters respectively, largely due to contractions in imports from China on those items.  In a prior post (October 13) on the announced likelihood of a first phase U.S.-China agreement, I reviewed the contraction in U.S. exports of agricultural products, particularly soybeans, that happened in 2018 (down $10.2 billion from 2017).  There has been some limited improvement in U.S. exports of soybeans in the first nine months of 2019 and so no agriculture products saw huge declines in exports in 2019 or large reductions in the US trade surplus with China this year.

 Some of the U.S. trade balance improvement vis-à-vis China on these specific manufactured  goods was offset by increased deficits with Mexico ($1.7 billion for Chapter 84, $1.3 billion for Chapter 85), the EU ($6.9 billion for Chapter 84), Taiwan ($4.3 billion for Chapter 84, $1.7 billion for Chapter 85) and Vietnam ($0.5 billion for Chapter 84, $7.6 billion for Chapter 85, $1.3 billion for Chapter 94).

The challenge for any administration attempting to change trade flows is the time it takes to achieve new agreements, to implement specific actions, and to design and obtain approval for new legislation.  Such challenges reflect the state of play for many of the Trump Administration’s trade efforts to date.  Benefits from the initial agreements with Japan signed on October 7 will likely be seen in 2020 if Japan is able to implement the agreements through legislation this month as is reported as possible in the media.  Changes from the USMCA will depend on whether and when Congress takes up implementing legislation.  The Administration is hoping to conclude and sign a first phase trade agreement with China yet this year.  Such an agreement with China will likely result in at least a standstill on tariffs against China and likely some reductions in tariff levels phased in over time based on results of implementation efforts by both sides.  An agreement with China would also improve market conditions for some U.S. products shipped to China, with reported commitments for increased purchases of various U.S. agricultural products as but one example.  Discussions are ongoing with other countries on specific trade concerns, and so additional improvements in market access may yet occur during the current term of President Trump’s Administration. 

Businesses understandably look for predictability in both the trade environment and the rules of engagement with trading partners.  With the heavy focus on revising domestic trade policy and the aggressive use of legislative tools on the books, the Trump Administration’s efforts to date have created a great deal of uncertainty for businesses.  Some businesses have been harmed at least short term, others have benefited from the actions taken by the Administration.  Whether the changes being pursued by the Administration will achieve the objectives sought is an open question.  A review of the changes in trade flows (U.S. imports and U.S. exports) from the Trump Administration’s first thirty-three months in office show that changes towards greater trade balance will not occur quickly nor without a fair amount of disruption to supply chains, business models and companies and many workers.  A more sustainable trade environment is an important objective.  Not since the early 1970s has an Administration been concerned about large and increasing trade deficits.  The Trump Administration has been concerned and has been attempting to change domestic and international trade policy to restore greater balance.  Whether meaningful change will occur is almost certainly a multiple Administration project.  Whether the project will be pursued will depend in part on what is achieved under the current Administration.

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WTO’s Appellate Body Reform – The Draft General Council Decision on Functioning of the Appellate Body

At the October 15, 2019 General Council meeting, agenda item 4, involved a report from H.E. Dr. David Walker (New Zealand) as the Facilitator on the informal process he had been assisting related to the functioning of the WTO Appellate Body.  More specifically, Ambassador Walker, who is also serving this year as the Chairman of the Dispute Settlement Body, has been working with WTO Members as they attempt to address the U.S. concerns with the operation of the Appellate Body (“AB”) and obtain removal of the U.S. blockage of starting a process of filling Appellate Body vacancies.  Amb. Walker submitted under his own authority, after several months of meetings with WTO Members and review /discussion of a range of submissions by various Members suggesting approaches to address U.S. concerns, a draft General Council Decision.

The Appellate Body’s membership will be reduced to one (vs. seven when the Appellate Body has a full number of members) after December 10, 2019 as two of three existing AB members terms expire then.  After December 10th, the AB won’t have three members to assign to hear appeals filed after that date absent removal of the blockage and new members being appointed.  This is not new news, but the draft General Council Decision is an important effort to move the process of finding solutions to the problems identified by the United States (and other countries).  The draft General Council Decision can be found as an Annex to JOB/GC/222.  https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/SS/directdoc.aspx?filename=q:/Jobs/GC/222.pdf.

Unfortunately, while there are sections of the draft decision that address each of the major issues raised by the United States, the draft falls short of actually providing any assurances that the problems of the past won’t continue going forward.  The U.S. Statement on the agenda item at the General Council meeting on October 15 makes the U.S. ongoing concerns abundantly clear:

“We thank the Facilitator, Ambassador David Walker, for his considerable efforts to date and for his report to Members.

“We have also listened carefully to the discussions. As we have explained, the fundamental problem is that the Appellate Body is not respecting the current, clear language of the DSU.  While a number of Members have expressed concern with actions or approaches by the Appellate Body, others appear willing to tolerate – or even encourage – those actions.   If we WTO Members cannot agree that we should be concerned that the Appellate Body has broken the plain rules that Members agreed to in the DSU, then it is difficult to see how we can find solutions to a “problem” we do not agree exists.  By denying that they are concerned about persistent rule-breaking by the Appellate Body, some WTO Members seek to avoid the deeper question: why did the Appellate Body feel free to disregard the clear text of the agreements?

“We cannot find meaningful solutions without understanding how we arrived at this point. Without an accurate diagnosis, we cannot assess the likely effectiveness of any potential solution.  It is possible that some explanations may cut across several of the issues and be of a systemic nature.  For instance, one cause could be the ongoing challenges facing the WTO negotiating function and its oversight function, leading to unchecked “institutional creep” by the Appellate Body as Members push to achieve through litigation what they haven’t achieved or can’t achieve at the negotiating table.

“Another cause could be that some WTO Members believe that the Appellate Body is an “international court” and its members are “judges” who inherently have more expansive authority than is provided in the DSU, for example, to create “jurisprudence” and fill gaps in the WTO agreements.  This view may be shared by some who have served on the Appellate Body.  It is also possible that some explanations for why the Appellate Body felt free to depart from the clear text of the DSU may be specific to the concerns that have been raised.

“For example, Article 17.5 of the DSU could not be more clear or categorical that appellate reports must be issued within 90 days.  While the DSB minutes record that some WTO Members raised concerns about the Appellate Body’s exceeding 90 days, particularly without even consulting the parties, the minutes also record a few Members excusing the breach of our agreed rules.  Did the attitude of these Members contribute to a mindset among the Appellate Body that the WTO’s rules and deadlines did not need to be respected?

“On so-called “cogent reasons”, the Facilitator’s Report suggests that Members agree that “precedent” is not created through WTO dispute settlement.    If this is so, then why did some WTO Members advocate for the Appellate Body to assert that its interpretations must be followed by panels absent unidentified cogent reasons?  And why then does the Appellate Body assert a precedential value for its reports like an authoritative interpretation that only WTO Members in the Ministerial Conference or General Council can give?

“As a result of these fundamental questions not yet being addressed, we do not see convergence among Members with respect to an understanding and appreciation of the concerns raised.

“It is important to recognize that suggested convergence on statements in the Facilitator’s Report that largely reflect the existing text of the DSU does not indicate convergence on the understanding of the problem and the situation in which Members now find themselves. It simply will not work to “paper over” the problems that have been identified with new language that the Appellate Body and some Members could subsequently argue means the Appellate Body can continue operating the way that it has.

“To find a solution to the concerns raised, WTO Members will need to reach a shared understanding that the Appellate Body has failed to follow the rules agreed by Members and the role assigned to it by the Members. And let me repeat – the purpose of this process is not to re-negotiate the rules already agreed by Members to establish and govern the WTO dispute settlement system.  Rather, we need to find a way to ensure the system operates as agreed by Members.  Consequently, simply re-affirming the current WTO rules that have been broken persistently does not resolve the problem.

“In addition to these threshold considerations, we question whether there is convergence on the suggestions presented in the Facilitator’s Report.  For example:

  • “With respect to the issue of Appellate Body members whose terms have expired, the proposal would appear to depart from the DSU and provide for an undetermined term for those former Appellate Body members.
  • “Regarding the 90-day deadline for Appellate Body reports, the DSU text is already clear, and yet the Appellate Body has failed to respect it. What reason would there be to think this language would ensure a different result?
  • “With respect to the issue of appellate review of questions of fact, we are concerned that the Appellate Body would say it is already abiding by the text in the Facilitator’s Report, especially since the Appellate Body has interpreted DSU Article 11 to convert questions of fact into questions of law, and we hear WTO Members expressing different views on the meaning of Article 11 of the DSU.
  • “With respect to advisory opinions, similarly, the Appellate Body presumably considers that it is already abiding by the text in the Faciliator’s Report. What basis is there to consider that this language would have a different result?
  • “Regarding the issue of precedent, the Appellate Body has relied on the reference in the DSU to security and predictability to justify its “cogent reasons” approach, and we are concerned that the proposed language does not address the issue.
  • “With respect to the issue of overreach, it is clear that the Appellate Body would say that it already abides by the text of Article 17.6 of the Anti-Dumping Agreement and, in turn, the text in the Facilitator’s Report. The problem is that the Appellate Body has adopted an erroneous interpretation of Article 17.6 that renders it inutile.  We have not yet seen convergence on how to address this issue, or other instances in which the Appellate Body has departed from the plain text of other covered agreements.

“And we would note that there are a number of concerns that have been expressed over the years with respect to the Appellate Body’s approach to substantive provisions in a variety of areas, such as national treatment and technical barriers to trade, safeguards, subsidies, countervailing measures, and antidumping duties.  Concerns related to the Appellate Body departing from the plain text of the covered agreements and upsetting the careful balance of rights and obligations struck by Members have not yet been part of the discussions.

“In sum, the Facilitator’s Report suggests agreement among some Members that the DSU imposes clear limitations on the Appellate Body.  We appreciate that some progress has been made through engagement by Members and the efforts of the Facilitator and others.  But we fail to see convergence on how to ensure that those limitations are respected going forward, and what are the consequences for continued failure to adhere to those limitations.  To find an appropriate and effective solution, it is imperative for Members to engage in a discussion on how we have come to this point.

https://geneva.usmission.gov/2019/10/15/statements-by-the-united-states-at-the-wto-general-council-meeting/

Other Members have been unwilling to explore how the operation of the dispute settlement system has come to the situation it is in at present.  Thus, it is unlikely that one will see meaningful progress in narrowing the differences between the U.S. and others on a core concern of the U.S.  That said, there is always the possibility that WTO Members could examine each of the issues from the perspective of how the system can be made to comply with the DSU requirements beyond simply the language of the DSU.  Stated differently, what are the consequences for failure to comply with DSU limitations by the Appellate Body?

What follows is my personal effort to identify some consequences of actions that have long concerned the United States.  Obviously, only the U.S. can determine what will address its concerns.  But possibly some of the following suggestions, if part of any final package, could address some of the ongoing and longstanding U.S. concerns.  The text, other than what is both in bold and underlined, is the draft General Council Decision that is contained as an Annex to Amb. Walker’s October 15, 2019 report to the General Council.  Job/GC/222.  Only one number has been deleted – “6” (60 days has been changed to 90 days under the first topic).

DRAFT GENERAL COUNCIL DECISION ON FUNCTIONING OF THE APPELLATE BODY

The General Council,

Conducting the function of the Ministerial Conference in the interval between meetings pursuant to paragraph 2 of Article IV of the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization (the “WTO Agreement”);

Having regard to paragraph 1 of Article IX of the WTO Agreement;

Mindful of the work undertaken in the Informal Process of Solution-Focused Discussion on Matters Related to the Functioning of the Appellate Body, under the auspices of the General Council;

Recognizing the central importance of a properly functioning dispute settlement system in the rules-based multilateral trading system, which serves to preserve the rights and obligations of Members under the WTO Agreement and ensures that rules are enforceable;

Desiring to enhance the functioning of that system consistent with the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes (the “DSU”);

Decides as follows:

Transitional rules for outgoing Appellate Body members

Only WTO Members may appoint members of the Appellate Body.  

The Dispute Settlement Body (the “DSB”) has the explicit authority, and responsibility, to determine membership of the Appellate Body and is obligated to fill vacancies as they arise.

To assist Members in discharging this responsibility, the selection process to replace outgoing Appellate Body members shall be automatically launched 180 days before the expiry of their term in office. Such selection process shall follow past practice.

If a vacancy arises before the regular expiry of an Appellate Body member’s mandate, or as a result of any other situation, the Chair of the DSB shall immediately launch the selection process with a view to filling that vacancy as soon as possible.

Appellate Body members nearing the end of their terms may be assigned to a new division up until 90 days before the expiry of their term.

An Appellate Body member so assigned may complete an appeal process in which the oral hearing has been held prior to the normal expiry of their term if completing such appeal is consistent with Article 17.5 of the DSU or any mutually agreed extension by the parties.

90 Days

Consistent with Article 17.5 of the DSU, the Appellate Body is obligated to issue its report no later than 90 days from the date a party to the dispute notifies its intention to appeal.

In cases of unusual complexity or periods of numerous appeals, the parties may agree with the Appellate Body to extend the time-frame for issuance of the Appellate Body report beyond 90 days.1 Any such agreement will be notified to the DSB by the parties and the Chair of the Appellate Body.

Failure to complete the appeal within 90 days of the notification of intent to appeal, or such other time as the parties agree to, shall result in the appeal terminating with no decision.  In such situations the Dispute Settlement Body will consider adoption of the panel report but rights of the complaining party under Articles 21.6 and 22 of the DSU shall not apply.

The Appellate Body will supply the Dispute Settlement Body with a description of steps taken by the Division to complete any such appeal within 90 days and any modifications to Appellate Body procedures and practice that will be pursued by the Appellate Body to ensure such failure to comply with the 90 day rule is not repeated.   

1 Such agreement may also be made in instances of force majeure.

Municipal Law

The ‘meaning of municipal law’ is to be treated as a matter of fact and therefore is not subject to appeal.  Where the Appellate Body nonetheless addresses the meaning of municipal law in an Appellate Body report, either party may request that the paragraphs of the Appellate Body report dealing with such issue or issues and any conclusions drawn therefrom  be striken, and the Appellate Body will reissue the decision without such paragraphs forthwith.  Compliance with the 90 day requirement will be measured from the date of the revised decision.

The DSU does not permit the Appellate Body to engage in a ‘de novo’ review or to ‘complete the analysis’ of the facts of a dispute. 

Consistent with Article 17.6 of the DSU, it is incumbent upon Members engaged in appellate proceedings to refrain from advancing extensive and unnecessary arguments in an attempt to have factual findings overturned on appeal, under DSU Article 11, in a de facto ‘de novo review’.   Where Article 11 is invoked by a Member seeking review on appeal of whether the panel failed to make an objective assessment, any other party may file an objection.  The Appellate Body will consider the claim only in extraordinary circumstances of facial bias in the assessment by the panel.  A Member raising such a claim that is dismissed will be assessed costs to the Member who filed an objection.

Advisory Opinions and Appellate Body Economy in Decisions

Issues that have not been raised by either party may not be ruled or decided upon by the Appellate Body.   Where issues not raised by either party are addressed in the Appellate Body report, the addressing of such issues constitutes the provision of an advisory opinion and is inconsistent with DSU Article 17.12 .  Either party may request that the paragraphs of the Appellate Body report dealing with such issue or issues and any conclusion based thereon be striken, and the Appellate Body will reissue the decision without such paragraphs forthwith.  Compliance with the 90 day requirement will be measured from the date of the revised decision.

Consistent with Article 3.4 of the DSU, the Appellate Body shall address issues raised by parties in accordance with DSU Article 17.6 only to the extent necessary to assist the DSB in making the recommendations or in giving the ruling provided for in the covered agreements in order to resolve the dispute.  The Appellate Body’s indicating that other issues raised need not be addressed to resolve the dispute satisfies the requirements of DSU Article 17.12.

Precedent

Precedent is not created through WTO dispute settlement proceedings.

Consistency and predictability in the interpretation of rights and obligations under the covered agreements is of significant value to Members.

Panels and the Appellate Body should take previous Panel/Appellate Body reports into account to the extent they find them relevant in the dispute they have before them.  The Appellate Body shall not reverse a panel decision on any issue solely on the basis of the panel not conforming to a prior Appellate Body report where the panel has identified different factual and/or legal issues.  

‘Overreach’

As provided in Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU, findings and recommendations of Panels and the Appellate Body and recommendations and rulings of the DSB cannot add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in the covered agreements.   In a large number of Panel and Appellate Body reports, one or more parties and/or third parties have raised concerns about the Panel or Appellate Body adding to or diminishing the rights and obligations contrary to Articles 3.2 or 19.2 of the DSU.

To clarify situations where rights and obligations are being added to or diminished, Panels and the Appellate Body will not fill gaps in agreements, construe silence to indicate obligations or construe ambiguities in language of existing agreements to require a particular construction.  Any such actions by a Panel or by the Appellate Body is inconsistent with Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU.

Any party to an Appellate Body report that raised at the DSB meeting considering adoption of the Appellate Body report concerns about the creation of rights or obligations inconsistent with Articles 3.2 or 19.2, will have 90 days from the adoption of this General Council decision to request a review of the Appellate Body decision.  Such request will be for the limited purpose of having the Appellate Body determine whether on the specific issues raised where the party complained of creating rights or obligations the clarification of meaning provided in this General Council decision would result in a changed decision on the particular issue.  The Appellate Body will render decisions on all such requests within 90 days and will accept no additional briefing or argument from parties.  Where the report would have been different on one or more particular issues, it is sufficient for the Appellate Body to so indicate.  Where the same decision on an issue would have been made, the Appellate Body shall provide a detailed explanation.      

Panels and the Appellate Body shall interpret provisions of the Agreement on Implementation of Article VI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“antidumping agreement”) in accordance with Article 17.6(ii) of that Agreement.  Any party to an Appellate Body report that raised at the DSB meeting considering adoption of the Appellate Body report that Article 17.6(ii) was not applied in interpreting the antidumping agreement, will have 90 days from the adoption of this General Council decision to request a review of the Appellate Body decision.  Such a request will be for the limited purpose of having the Appellate Body determine whether a different outcome on one or more issues would have resulted had the Appellate Body applied Article 17.6(ii)  of the antidumping agreement.  The Appellate Body will render decisions on all such requests within 90 days and will accept no additional briefing or argument from parties.  Where the report would have been different on one or more particular issues, it is sufficient for the Appellate Body to so indicate.  Where the same decision on an issue would have been made, the Appellate Body shall provide a detailed explanation.       

Regular dialogue between the DSB and the Appellate Body

The DSB, in consultation with the Appellate Body, will establish a mechanism for regular dialogue between WTO Members and the Appellate Body where Members can express their views on issues, including in relation to implementation of this Decision, in a manner unrelated to the adoption of particular reports.  Such mechanism will be in the form of an informal meeting, at least once a year, hosted by the Chair of the DSB.

The Appellate Body Secretariat will prepare and circulate to the DSB at least 60 days in advance of such a meeting a document which reviews:

(a) for any Appellate Body member whose term is or has expired in the last 12 months, assignments to appeals within 90 days of the end of the term and any appeals on which the AB member continued to work after his term expired and whether such continuation was authorized by the parties to the appeal;

(b) the time from notification of intent to file an appeal to the AB decision in each case filed in the last twelve months (and for the first such report and any subsequent reports where appeals are not current with the 90 day requirement) to an AB report (or revised report where paragraphs are requested to be deleted as addressing issues not raised by any party) and copies of any write-ups filed where reports were not filed within 90 days;

(c) a list of AB reports where paragraphs were requested striken and time from request to rerelease of AB report;

(d) a list of requests for review in appeals pursuant to Article 11 of the DSU of panel decisions as not being an objective assessment, how each request was resolved, and for such claims that were not properly filed whether costs were paid by the party raising the issue;

(e) the number of AB reports where parties requested review based on statements made at prior DSB meetings that rights or obligations were being added to or diminished and/or that Article 17.6(ii) of the antidumping agreement was not applied or was applied inappropriately, timing of resolution by the Appellate Body and the number of issues where a different decision was rendered.

Where the Appellate Body has been unable to comply with the requirements of the DSU as clarified by this General Council Decision, it is expected that the Appellate Body Chairman will present at the informal meeting the action plan being pursued by the Appellate Body to achieve full compliance with the terms of the DSU and this Decision. 

To safeguard the independence and impartiality of the Appellate Body, clear ground rules will be provided to ensure that at no point should there be any discussion of ongoing disputes or any member of the Appellate Body other than as it relates to compliance with this General Council Decision. 

The October 28, 2019 WTO Dispute Settlement Body Meeting – Another Systemic Problem Flagged by the United States

The United States has been raising concerns for many years on a range of issues with the operation of the dispute settlement system, particularly actions by the Appellate Body.  Time has run out to prevent some hiatus in the functioning of the Appellate Body after December 10 when the current membership of the Appellate Body goes from three to one with vacancies going from four to six of the seven member body.  There is a requirement within the Dispute Settlement Understanding to have three Appellate Body members handle any appeal from a panel report.  The likely process for finding replacements for Appellate Body vacancies, once authorized (see, e.g., WT/DSB/W/609 and revisions 1-14) will take a number of months.  With the continued impasse within the Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”) as recently as the last DSB meeting on October 28, WTO members now certainly face a gap for appeals from panel decisions issued around or after December 10.  A few WTO members have formalized agreements among themselves for procedures to handle resolution of disputes for such time as the Appellate Body lacks adequate membership to conduct appeals relying on the authority for members to resolve disputes through arbitration.  The European Union and Norway have signed an agreement similar to the one that the EU and Canada had submitted previously (see post of Oct. 9).

Of interest in the press release on the October 28 DSB meeting from the WTO, was the issue raised by the United States on the problems posed by the Appellate Body’s past interpretation of Article 6.2 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”).  Article 6 of the DSU reads as follows:

“Article 6: Establishment of Panels

“1.     If the complaining party so requests, a panel shall be established at the latest at the DSB meeting following that at which the request first appears as an item on the DSB’s agenda, unless at that meeting the DSB decides by consensus not to establish a panel.

“2.     The request for the establishment of a panel shall be made in writing.  It shall indicate whether consultations were held, identify the specific measures at issue and provide a brief summary of the legal basis of the complaint sufficient to present the problem clearly.  In case the applicant requests the establishment of a panel with other than standard terms of reference, the written request shall include the proposed text of special terms of reference.”

The WTO press release on the DSB meeting indicated that the U.S. had claimed that the Appellate Body (“AB”) had “adopted an erroneous interpretation of Article 6.2 in past rulings which required a member to explain ‘how or why’ the measure at issue is considered to be violating WTO rules, a requirement that does not appear in the DSU text.”  The result of the AB interpretation was more complicated  disputes with a large number of procedural challenges which both increased the time to complete disputes and the uncertainty for parties.  https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news10_e/dsb_28oct19_e.htm

One of the cases before the DSB on October 28 was a dispute brought by Japan against Korea (DS504, antidumping duties on pneumatic valves from Japan).  Korea had challenged whether Japan had satisfied the “who or why” construction identified in prior Appellate Body decisions.  The panel found a number of Japan’s claims to be outside the panel’s terms of reference.  While the Appellate Body in the particular dispute disagreed with the panel, the issues that had been found outside of the panel’s terms of reference were not capable of decision based on the record.  The United States used the pneumatic valve case and the interpretation of Article 6.2 as another example of the problems that have been created in the dispute settlement system by the Appellate Body not limiting itself to actual text of the DSU.

Japan agreed with the United States that the “how or why” requirement for panel requests was inconsistent with Art. 6.2.  Canada took a different view, agreeing that at a minimum the specific WTO provisions alleged to be infringed needed to be identified  “although there may be cases where just citing the provisions does not cover the requirements of the DSU; ultimately a judgment must be made on a case by case basis.”  Id.

As the WTO struggles to achieve agreement on the future of the dispute settlement system, the different perspectives on the correct interpretation of Article 6.2 of the DSU show the challenges that are faced to restore a fully functioning dispute settlement system at the WTO.  Moreover, when the Appellate Body adds obligations to Members’ ability to bring disputes, the AB contributes to the delay in achieving final resolution of disputes, making it more likely timelines for appeals will not be respected.

U.S. Statement at the DSB Meeting Provides More Detail

The U.S. statement at the October 28 DSB meeting on the issue of Article 6.2’s proper interpretation was 4 1/3 pages in length (pages 10-14.  https://geneva.usmission.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/290/Oct28.DSB_.Stmt_.as-deliv.fin_.public.pdf). (“U.S. Statement”).

The U.S. identifies AB decisions that imposed the requirement on a complaining Member “to explain ‘how or why the measure at issue is considered by the complaining Member to be violating the WTO obligation in question.’”  Id. at 10 (referencing three AB decisions in footnote 2, EC -Selected Customs Matters, para. 130; China – Raw Materials, para. 226; US – Countervailing Measures (China), para. 4.9).  The consequences for Members can be significant, as issues plainly sought to be challenged are rejected as not properly before the panel and complaining parties face procedural issues resulting in delay and increased costs.  The U.S. noted that sixteen challenges had been brought by defending Members under Article 6.2’s construction put forward in earlier AB decisions. Indeed, “Over the past two years, over 30% of panel reports addressed Article 6.2 and the Appellate Body’s incorrect element of ‘how or why’.”  U.S. Statement at 12.  Defending parties seek to strike claims where the complaining party has not provided the basic arguments (the how or why) the complainant will be making in its later submissions.

To the extent that panels reject claims as not covered by the terms of reference, the complaining party is denied the opportunity to have its concerns examined.  Early termination of challenges to issues can result in truncated records before the panel, limiting what can be achieved through an appeal but also extending the time for final resolution (and to the extent rejection of claims are appealed) contributing to the inability of the AB to complete appeals within 90 days.

The U.S. also reviewed the history of the language in Article 6.2 of the DSU that had been interpreted by the AB as requiring an articulation of how or why the measure in dispute violated WTO obligations.  The language had been adopted in Montreal at the mid-term Uruguay Round meeting as part of improvements to the GATT dispute settlement rules (id. at footnote 8 citing GATT, Improvements to the GATT Dispute Settlement Rules and Procedures, Decision of 12 April 1989, L/6489, 13 April 1989, Section F(a)), and had never been construed to require a showing of “how” or “why” until the Appellate Body came up with that construction.  The first case cited in footnote 2 in the U.S. Statement (EC – Selected Customs Matters) was an Appellate Body decision issued in 2006.

While the apparent (at least partial) movement away from the “how or why” requirement in the recent Japan-Korea dispute by the Appellate Body decision is welcome, the continued confusion on what is required for a complaining party to have its issues considered  by a panel will both continue to challenge future panels and will complicate the ability to have a dispute settlement system that is operated to ensure it conforms to agreed rules by sovereign states – stated differently, permits the system to function as envisioned when created in the Uruguay Round. 

Two Initial U.S. Trade Agreements with Japan – What They Cover and What Will Follow

On October 16, 2018, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sent letters to Congress informing Congress of the President’s intent to enter trade negotiations with Japan.  Section 105(a)(1)(A) of the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 was referenced in the letters.  The letters indicated that negotiations with Japan could proceed in phases, that the administration would consult with Congress and that Administration negotiating positions were consistent with the priorities and objectives contained in section 102 of the 2015 law.  In December 2018, USTR published a summary of the Administration’s specific negotiating objectives with Japan.

Less than one year later, on September 25, 2019, President Trump and Prime Minister Abe announced that agreements had been reached on certain market access issues (agriculture and some other products by Japan; a large number of industrial goods and a few agricultural products by the U.S.) and a digital trade agreement between the two countries.  The two agreements and a series of side letters were signed on October 7.  It is expected that the two agreements will take effect on January 1, 2020, following action by the Diet in Japan and the publication of tariff reductions by the Administration in the U.S. pursuant to existing tariff reduction authority (and assuming the obligations of the U.S. under the digital trade agreement do not require any changes to U.S. law).   As indicated in the original notification, the negotiations are being undertaken in phases, with additional negotiations to commence four months after the two initial agreements take effect as reviewed in language on USTR’s webpage.

On October 7, 2019, USTR Robert Lighthizer and Ambassador of Japan to the United States Shinsuke J. Sugiyama signed the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement and U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement. In addition, as announced in the September 25, 2019, Joint Statement of the United States and Japan, the United States and Japan intend to conclude consultations within 4 months after the date of entry into force of the United States-Japan Trade Agreement and enter into negotiations thereafter in the areas of customs duties and other restrictions on trade, barriers to trade in services and investment, and other issues in order to promote mutually beneficial, fair, and reciprocal trade. Entry into force of the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement and U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement is currently pending finalization of domestic procedures in both countries.

https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/japan-korea-apec/japan/us-japan-trade-agreement-negotiations

Help for U.S. Agriculture

Having pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership [“TPP”] agreement in 2017, the U.S. has been anxious to achieve an agreement with Japan – a country that the Administration has indicated accounts for 95% of GDP of countries within the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership [“CPTPP”] with whom the U.S. does not presently have an FTA.  Japan has been a large market for U.S. beef, pork and wheat among other agricultural products.  With the CPTPP having entered into force on December 31, 2018 for Japan and many of the major agricultural export members of the CPTPP (Australia, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand) and with the Japan-EU FTA (entered into force February 1, 2019), U.S. agriculture has been concerned with loss of market share with the significant differences in tariff rates applicable to imports from Japan’s CPTPP partners and available to the EU.  In addition, U.S. agriculture has been buffeted over the last two years by retaliation by various countries in retaliation for US actions under section 232 on steel and aluminum products (China, EU, Canada, Mexico, India, Turkey, Russia) and under section 301 for intellectual property and other issues by China.

Looking at domestic exports to Japan of a few U.S. agricultural products, it is clear that U.S. exporters were seeing reduced volume and value of products in 2019.  Volume data are shown below along with the percent change between the first eight months of 2018 and 2019 (quantities are in metric tons):

Product 2016 2017 2018 Jan.-Aug. 2018 Jan-Aug. 2019 % Change
Beef –HS 0201 & 0202 203,852.8 258,193.7 278,800.7 191,672.7 173,023.5 -9.73%
Pork – HS 0203 361,530.9 365,130.6 366,626.0 245,970.0 233,698.2 -4.99%
Wheat – HS 1001 2,700,066 3,049,369 2,860,624 1,942,929 1,678,292 -13.62%
Corn – HS 1005 11,891,952 12,390,152 15,276,106 10,972,609 8,874,393 -19.12%

In contrast to declining U.S. exports to Japan in the first eight months of 2019 compared to the comparable period in 2018, total imports into Japan from all countries increased for three of the four products reviewed.  For beef, Japan imports increased by 1.13% on a volume basis.  Similarly, imports of pork products into Japan increased by 4.29% on a volume basis.  Total imports of corn into Japan also increased slightly (0.79%) on a volume basis.  While the volume of wheat imports from all countries declined by 7.91%, the rate of decline was significantly smaller than the contraction of US exports to Japan of wheat.  Thus, the U.S. saw reduced market share in all four of these major product categories and in many others as well.  Indeed US domestic exports of all agricultural products (HS Chapters 1-24) grew 15.28% on a value basis between 2016 and 2018 from $11.89 billion to $13.71 billion before declining 7.75% in the first eight months of 2019.  There were many US export categories that saw declines in value  during the first eight months of 2019 (HS 0201, fresh or chilled beef, -6.7%; HS 0202, frozen beef, -18.8%; HS 0203, fresh, chilled or frozen pork, -6.2%; HS 0303, frozen fish other than fish fillets, -28.4%; HS 0802, nuts, -8.0%; HS 1001, wheat, -18.3%; HS 1005, corn, -16.2%; HS 1201, soybeans, -1.7%).

Annex I to the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement identifies the various commitments on liberalization that Japan is making, almost all on agricultural products. 

https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/japan/Annex_I_Tariffs_and_Tariff-Related_Provisions_of_Japan.pdf 

USTR’s fact sheet provides the following summary of benefits for U.S. agriculture:

“In the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement, Japan has committed to provide substantial market access to American food and agricultural products by eliminating tariffs, enacting meaningful tariff reductions, or allowing a specific quantity of imports at a low duty (generally zero). Importantly, the tariff treatment for the products covered in this agreement will match the tariffs that Japan provides preferentially to countries in the CP-TPP agreement.

“Out of the $14.1 billion in U.S. food and agricultural products imported by Japan in 2018, $5.2 billion were already duty free. Under this first-stage initial tariff agreement, Japan will eliminate or reduce tariffs on an additional $7.2 billion of U.S. food and agricultural products. Over 90 percent of U.S. food and agricultural imports into Japan will either be duty free or receive preferential tariff access once the Agreement is implemented.

KEY ELEMENTS: U.S. AG EXPORTS TO JAPAN

Tariff Reduction:  For products valued at $2.9 billion, Japan will reduce tariffs in stages. Among the products benefitting from this enhanced access will be:

  • fresh beef
  • frozen beef
  • fresh pork
  • frozen pork

Tariff Elimination: Tariffs will be eliminated immediately on over $1.3 billion of U.S. farm products including, for example:

  • almonds
  • blueberries
  • cranberries
  • walnuts
  • sweet corn
  • grain sorghum
  • food supplements
  • broccoli
  • prunes

“Other products valued at $3.0 billion will benefit from staged tariff elimination. This group of products includes, for example:

  • wine
  • cheese and whey
  • ethanol
  • frozen poultry
  • processed pork
  • fresh cherries
  • beef offal
  • frozen potatoes
  • oranges
  • egg products
  • tomato paste

Country Specific Quotas (CSQs): For some products, preferential market access will be provided through the creation of CSQs, which provide access for a specified quantity of imports from the United States at a preferential tariff rate, generally zero. CSQ access will cover:

  • wheat
  • wheat products
  • malt
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • corn starch
  • potato starch
  • inulin

Mark Up: Exports to Japan of wheat and barley will benefit from a reduction to Japan’s “mark up” on those products. Japan’s imports of U.S. wheat and barley were valued at more than $800 million in 2018.

Safeguards: This agreement provides for the limited use of safeguards by Japan for surges in imports of beef, pork, whey, oranges, and race horses, which will be phased out over time.”

https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/fact-sheets/2019/september/fact-sheet-agriculture%E2%80%90related

There are also five side letters on specific agricultural products and one on safeguard provisions.  The specific products covered by such letters are alcoholic beverages, beef, rice, skimmed milk, and whey.  These side letters can be found here:  https://ustr.gov/countries-regions/japan-korea-apec/japan/us-japan-trade-agreement-negotiations/us-japan-trade-agreement-text.

What Japan Gets from the U.S. in terms of Tariff Reductions

Annex II contains the list of liberalization commitments on tariffs on goods the U.S. is providing Japan under the agreement.

 https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/japan/Annex_II_Tariffs_and_Tariff-Related_Provisions_of_the_United_States.pdf 

The U.S. agreed to some liberalization of a limited number (42) of six-digit HS categories.  USTR indicated in its fact sheet that imports from Japan in these 42 categories had been $40 million in 2018.  Twelve of the forty-two categories involve plants and cut flowers, two deal with yams, six deal with melons of various types, one covers fresh persimmons, two with green tea, ten with confectionery products, one with chewing gum, one covers soy sauce, and seven cover various other items.

The bulk of what Japan obtains in tariff liberalization occurs in industrial goods (chapters 25-99) though motor vehicles and parts are not part of the liberalization.  There are some chemicals, a few rubber products, mirrors, some steel products and the vast majority from HS Chapters 84 and 85. 

As the Administration is not intending to submit implementing legislation, the Administration is limited to the tariff reduction authority contained in Section 103(a)(3) of the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, 19 U.S.C. 4202(a)(3).  Thus, for  any of the products on which liberalization is to occur where Column 1 tariffs are greater than five percent ad valorem,  tariffs will be reduced but not eliminated.  Most products in HS Chapters 84 and 85 included for tariff reductions are below 5% but many agricultural products and certain industrial tariffs (e.g., bicycles and parts, HS 8712 and HS 8714) are above 5%.

WTO Compatibility

Both the U.S. and Japan intend to pursue further negotiations starting in early May 2020.  Certainly the Administration summary of negotiating objectives articulate aims which comport with obtaining a comprehensive trade agreement that would be comparable to other FTAs in terms of trade in goods coverage.  But the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement dealing with tariffs does not by itself qualify as a Free Trade Agreement (“FTA”) within the meaning of GATT Article XXIV:8(b) where substantially all tariffs on goods trade are eliminated within a reasonable period of time.  The Agreement’s failure to provide for duty-free treatment for substantially all trade in goods is true for Japan’s treatment of imports from the U.S. as well as the U.S.’s treatment of imports from Japan.  For example, U.S. exports to Japan in 2018 were only 20% in agricultural goods, with fully 80% of exports in industrial goods.  With few exceptions, industrial goods are not the subject of the current agreement in terms of Japanese liberalization (though Japan has zero tariffs on many industrial goods already).  Similarly, motor vehicle goods and parts are not part of the trade liberalization.  There are Column 1 tariffs for most HS Chapter 87 goods.  Excluding bicycles and parts which are part of the current agreements, imports from Japan under just Chapter 87 were more than $53 billion in 2018 or some 37% of total imports.  Thus, the current agreement, absent a future enlargement would likely be viewed as violating MFN requirements of the WTO as not a permissible FTA under GATT Art. XXIV:8(b).

There have been no disputes over whether particular FTAs  fail to satisfy the requirements of Article XXIV, and it is novel for a trade agreement to be done in phases.  Assuming the U.S. and Japan complete their negotiations and implement the resulting enlarged agreement in the next year or two, the final agreement will likely be WTO consistent, regardless of views of the phase approach and initial agreement reached.

U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement

Digital trade is a rapidly growing part of international commerce.  The U.S. has been seeking either a digital trade chapter (e.g., U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement [“USMCA”]) or where negotiations are done in phases, as a stand-alone agreement.  The latter is what has emerged from the talks to date with Japan.  The U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement has been described by the Administration as the “gold standard” and similar to the chapter in the USMCA.  The USTR fact sheet lays out what the agreement achieves as perceived by the Administration:

“FACT SHEET U.S.-Japan Digital Trade Agreement

“As two of the most digitally-advanced countries in the world, the United States and Japan share a deep common interest in establishing enforceable rules that will support digitally-enabled suppliers from every sector of their economies to innovate and prosper, and in setting standards for other economies to emulate.

“The United States-Japan Digital Trade Agreement parallels the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as the most comprehensive and high-standard trade agreement addressing digital trade barriers ever negotiated. This agreement will help drive economic prosperity, promote fairer and more balanced trade, and help ensure that shared rules support businesses in key sectors where both countries lead the world in innovation.

“Key outcomes of this agreement include rules that achieve the following:

  • Prohibiting application of customs duties to digital products distributed electronically, such as e-books, videos, music, software, and games.
  • Ensuring non-discriminatory treatment of digital products, including coverage of tax measures.
  • Ensuring that data can be transferred across borders, by all suppliers, including financial service suppliers.
  • Facilitating digital transactions by permitting the use of electronic authentication and electronic signatures, while protecting consumers’ and businesses’ confidential information and guaranteeing that enforceable consumer protections are applied to the digital marketplace.
  • Prohibiting data localization measures that restrict where data can be stored and processed, enhancing and protecting the global digital ecosystem; and extending these rules to financial service suppliers, in circumstances where a financial regulator has the access to data needed to fulfill its regulatory and supervisory mandate.
  • Promoting government-to-government collaboration and supplier adherence to common principles in addressing cybersecurity challenges.
  • Protecting against forced disclosure of proprietary computer source code and algorithms.
  • Promoting open access to government-generated public data.
  • Recognizing rules on civil liability with respect to third-party content for Internet platforms that depend on interaction with users.
  • Guaranteeing enforceable consumer protections, including for privacy and unsolicited communication, that apply to the digital marketplace, and promoting the interoperability of enforcement regimes, such as the APEC Cross-Border Privacy Rules system (CBPR).
  • Ensuring companies’ effective use of encryption technologies and protecting innovation for commercial products that use cryptography, consistent with applicable law.

“Together, these provisions will set predictable rules of the road and encourage a robust market in digital trade between the two countries – developments that should support increased prosperity and well-paying jobs in the United States and Japan.”

https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/fact-sheets/2019/october/fact-sheet-us-japan-digital-trade-agreement

The agreement represents the U.S. achieving the negotiating objectives that it identified for digital trade in USTR’s summary of negotiating objectives (page 6) – no customs duties on digital trade (Art. 7 of Agreement), non-discriminatory treatment of digit trade in Japan (Art. 8 of Agreement), rules to limit interference with transborder flows of data (Art. 11 of Agreement), rules preventing governments from disclosing computer codes or algorithms (Art. 17 of Agreement), and limiting non-IPR civil liability for online platforms for third party content (Art. 18 of Agreement).  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2018.12.21_Summary_of_U.S.-Japan_Negotiating_Objectives.pdf

There are, of course, many other provisions in the Agreement, some dealing with privacy, some dealing with access to government information, some dealing with cybersecurity.  In light of the stand-alone nature of the Agreement, the U.S. has also included exclusion provisions for national security and other purposes (e.g., GATT Art. XX, prudential purposes).

The Administration’s ability to enter into the agreement and have it take effect on January 1 is premised presumably on the agreement being consistent with existing U.S. law and practice and hence not needing legislative amendments to address.

WTO Consistency

Because the WTO’s primary agreements flow from the Uruguay Round, there is limited coverage of digital trade within the WTO (there has been a moratorium, extended at each Ministerial on imposition of customs duties on digital goods).  Thus, there are no WTO-consistency issues with the Agreement Between the United States and Japan Concerning Digital Trade Agreement.

Conclusion

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and an important trading partner for the United States.  The intention to start negotiations with Japan was one of three notifications of intended negotiations sent to Congress by the Trump Administration (Canada and Mexico, the EU being the others).  USMCA is awaiting final amendments to permit a Congressional vote and the EU talks have not advanced significantly at this point.  The Administration has adopted the novel approach of doing negotiations with Japan in phases.  The first phase of tariff liberalization has focused on U.S. agricultural interests and offsetting disadvantages for US agricultural exporters from the CPTPP entering into force at the beginning of the year and the Japan-EU agreement which took effect on February 1, 2019.  The agreement appears to move U.S. agricultural producers back to a competitive position with the other major agricultural exporters covered by the CPTPP and Japan-EU agreements.  The legitimacy of the first agreement depends on there being a broader agreement with Japan that the U.S. reaches in reasonably prompt fashion. 

The second agreement on digital trade reflects the continued growth and importance of digital trade to both the U.S. and Japan and the adoption of provisions the U.S. has been pursuing in recent years.

In short, concluding the two agreements should be helpful to U.S. trade interests.  However, there is a lot of work left to do with our important trading partner and ally, Japan, to achieve an overall result that is consistent with our WTO obligations.       

U.S.-China Trade – Some Possible Progress Announced on October 11, But a Long Road Ahead?

On Friday, October 11, 2019, President Trump and Vice Premier Liu He of China announced a “phase one” deal, although the President indicated it could be three to five weeks (possibly more) before the deal was in writing and ready for Presidents Trump and Xi to sign.  Topics reportedly covered in this first phase include agricultural market access (which President Trump expressed in terms of anticipated agricultural product purchases by China to be ramped up over the next two years to $40-50 billion/year), addressing some sanitary and phytosanitary issues of concern to the U.S. (including issues involving biotechnology) in China, greater access for U.S. financial service providers, apparently addressing some aspects of intellectual property concerns though others will be addressed in a “phase 2” and agreement around transparency in foreign exchange markets.  See Remarks by President Trump and Vice Premier Liu He of the People’s Republic of China in a Meeting, October 11, 2109, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-presemt-trump-vice-premier-liu-peoples-republic-china-meeting/.

The President has put off increasing tariffs on $250 billion in imports from China from 25% to 30%, an increase that had been set for October 15.  No decision has been made by the U.S. on the tariffs scheduled on most remaining imports from China which are scheduled for December 15, though Amb. Lighthizer made clear that there was sufficient time for phase one to be completed and signed ahead of that date.  Tariffs already in place remain in place for the time being.

The U.S. had thought it was close to a deal with China in early May 2019 only to have the “papering” of the perceived agreement blow-up as China was perceived by the U.S. as backtracking on a host of issues where the U.S. had understood there was agreement.  Back in late April, early May there was a reported 150 page draft of a comprehensive agreement.  Not surprising, there are concerns in the media and in business that the “papering” of the phase one agreement may yet prove illusive.

But the announcement that the two countries are actively engaged in negotiations and are hopeful of completing a phase one shortly is obviously good news for many groups in the U.S., in China and around the world.

How Important Could a Phase One Agreement Be?

          A. Agriculture

U.S. farmers and ranchers have been particularly hard hit by retaliation of trading partners whether for U.S. actions on national security grounds (Section 232 action on steel and aluminum) or in response to the Administration’s actions under Section 301 in an effort to address various perceived unfair trade practices of China (forced technology transfer, theft of IP, among other issues).

In the case of China, U.S. exports of agricultural products increased from $6.5 billion in 2007 to a high of $22.6 billion in 2013 and 2014 and were still at $18.7 billion in 2017 before retaliation by China commenced in 2018.  U.S. agriculture exports declined $10.2 billion to just $8.5 billion in 2018.  Some increased purchases of soybeans by China in midyear 2018 have resulted in an increase from the extraordinarily low 2018 exports through August of 2019 ($7.6 billion vs. $7.1 billion for first eight months of 2018). 

For the period 2007-2017,  US exports of soybeans accounted for more than half of all US agricultural exports to China (from 54.9% – 75.9%) and were 65.4% of total US agricultural exports in 2017 before retaliation by China on soybeans and other agricultural products resulted in soybeans dropping to just 36.5% of US exports in 2018.  The U.S. exports of soybeans declined $9.1 billion in 2018 from 2017 levels and accounted for 89.2% of total US agricultural export declines to China ($10.2 billion) in 2018.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of focus on the agricultural market access has been to get China to increase imports, particularly of soybeans.  US exports of soybeans to China declined from 31.7 million metric tons in 2017 to just 8.2 million metric tons in 2018 (and are 5.1 million metric tons higher for the first eight months of 2019).  Remarks by President Trump and Vice Premier Liu He on Friday indicated that orders have been placed which either bring the total purchases of U.S. soybeans by China to 20 million metric tons or for an additional 20 million (not clear from the transcript).  2016 saw the largest U.S. exports to China of soybeans, 36.1 million metric tons.

For China to purchase $40-50 billion in agricultural goods will in fact require a significant broadening and deepening of market access by many other competitive U.S. agricultural products, including grains, corn, beef, pork, chicken to name just a few.  Thus, the success of the agricultural market access agreement with China will depend both on the decisions of the Chinese import entities that control certain agricultural products and the elimination by China of tariffs and sanitary and phytosanitary obstacles that have limited U.S. market access to date.

B.  Financial Services and Exchange Rates

The U.S. has a very competitive financial services sector.  Increased liberalization by China would obviously be appreciated by U.S. companies and would benefit China as well.  Press articles from earlier this year indicated that the Chinese were contemplating liberalization of the financial services sector for WTO members generally, thus the agreement between China and the U.S. may simply reflect movement in China’s overall position on financial services.  How important the liberalization will be to US service providers will depend on (1) the text of the agreement reached, (2) how China implements the terms, and (3) what enforcement mechanisms are available should implementation suffer from some of the same types of problems US financial service providers have been dealing with for the last fifteen years.

While currency manipulation/misalignment has been a long term concern of the U.S. with China and with a number of other countries, it is unclear what actions are contemplated by the phase one agreement as outlined last Friday and whether misalignment will be addressable in a meaningful manner if problems arise or are viewed by the U.S. as continuing.

Addressing Market Distortions in Non-Agricultural Goods is Critical to Any Balanced Final Package (Phase 2 or later).

While restoring and improving access for US agricultural products is certainly a very important part of achieving better balance with China, the Section 301 investigation handled by USTR focused on intellectual property issues primarily involving non-agricultural goods.  Other long simmering challenges have included the massive distortions created by China’s enormous subsidies, the continued dominant role played by state-owned and state-invested enterprises in China , and China’s continued state direction of large parts of the economy.

U.S. exports of nonagricultural goods to China have accounted for more than 80% of total U.S. exports to the country in nearly every year since 2007 and were above 92% in 2018 following initial retaliation by China.  While the 2018 decline in total US exports to China were almost 100% in agricultural goods (at the aggregate level not individual HS categories), more than 100% of the decline in the first eight months of 2019 have been to nonagricultural goods, including heavy hits to U.S. exports of motor vehicles and parts and civil aircraft.  Moreover, the US trade deficit with China is entirely in nonagricultural goods.  In 2017, total trade deficit (domestic exports – imports for consumption) was $383.8 billion, with the deficit on nonagricultural goods running $395.5 billion.

While President Trump indicated that there was agreement in the phase one package on some intellectual property issues, the public won’t be able to evaluate the nature of any modifications in nonagricultural trade until the phase one agreement is finished and signed.  Almost certainly the most difficult issues for nonagricultural goods (including state subsidies, China 2025 policies, etc.) are not presently part of the announced phase one package, meaning any addressing of more than 80% of our trade with China will likely not occur until 2020 or later.   

Enforcement is Important; Can it Be Achieved?

USTR Lighthizer has been working hard throughout the process of negotiations with China to obtain an agreement that has meaningful and effective enforcement provisions.  The U.S. experience with China since its accession to the WTO has too often been one of both a failure by China to implement certain commitments and the lack of meaningful and effective enforcement tools when such situations arise and need to be addressed.  It is understood that what enforcement tools the U.S. sought back in April/May 2019 were viewed as problematic and/or unacceptable by China then.  The remarks on Friday by President Trump and others make clear that enforcement issues continue to be worked on the seemingly simpler phase one issues but have not yet been resolved.  This is certainly an area where problems may arise ahead of a phase one agreement and, as significantly, for any later phases.

Conclusion

The U.S.-China trade relationship is obviously important to each country and more generally to the world at large.  The current strains on the global economy and on the two countries’ economies have been increasing periodically over the last year and a half with additional actions taken by each country to increase the challenges for the other while negotiations have been inconclusive.  The facts that a partial deal may be achieved in the next month or so and that further escalation is put on hold should be good news for many businesses in the U.S. and China and elsewhere in the world.   

Whether the U.S. and China will be able to conclude the phase one agreement promptly and move forward expeditiously with the remaining critical issues in a phase two agreement are open questions.  Success would do a lot to move the world to a more sustainable and integrated world trading order.  Failure will deepen an economic malaise taking hold in much of the world to the detriment of many including many of the world’s poorest.

Here’s hoping that success and not failure will mark the October/November 2019 time period. 

The World Trade Organization in Crisis – the Last Two Months of the Appellate Body Absent Reform Is Just One Example

The World Trade Organization currently has 164 members (countries and customs territories), with an additional 22 countries in the process of pursuing accession.  While the WTO has attracted a lot of interest and greatly increased membership since its start in 1995, it is an organization in trouble and of diminishing relevance despite its important role and broad membership.  While the challenges facing the WTO dispute settlement system are an obvious example of an unresolved problem, dispute settlement is by no means the only area of concern.

Challenges with the Negotiations Function

Historically, the most important function of the WTO’s predecessor, the GATT, was negotiating reductions in tariffs and other trade barriers.  With a much broader membership under the WTO and with divergent economic systems for some major players from the historic market-based model,  the negotiating function has been seriously hampered and the rules-based system does not adequately address differences in economic systems.  While there have been some successes in expanding liberalization (e.g., information technology agreement, trade facilitation, agriculture export subsidy commitments), the consensus based approach and different interests of various major participants has largely prevented the WTO from maintaining a system reflecting current global issues and technologies and the differences in economic systems, with members relying on other vehicles to address pressing issues.

Members are attempting to reach agreement on limiting fisheries subsidies (now in the 18th year of negotiations) by the end of 2019 against a background of a continuing worsening of the overfishing problem globally.  Moreover, discussions on broader reform within the WTO have been being held over the last year or two, including efforts to restore vitality to the Committee process through improved notifications (see below) and addressing some of the practices of different economic systems that are destabilizing global markets in a wide range of products.  The likelihood of any significant breakthrough on fundamental reform seems implausible in light of the dramatically different interests of key members and the need for consensus.

Challenges to the Committee Oversight Function

A second function of the GATT and now the WTO has been a committee process that is supposed to permit Members to monitor the activities of other members through various notification requirements and an ability to identify current concerns and potentially identify solutions acceptable to the broader membership.  While the committee structure exists, notifications are spotty at best and the committee process has been reduced in importance for most of the first 25 years of the WTO through lack of focus by participating Members and other reasons.  There are committees which appear to have functioned reasonably well over periods of time, but this critical aspect of the WTO is not making the contributions that it could and should make.

Time is Running Out for the Appellate Body’s Continued Functioning

The third core area of the WTO is dispute settlement.  While there have been hundreds of disputes during the first 25 years of the WTO and while most Members are supportive of the system, there is a continuing crisis that flows from a core departure by the Appellate Body from the agreement that established the system, the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”).  While many/most of the Appellate Body decisions are accepted by most/all countries, fundamental concerns with a system at odds with the agreed purpose of dispute settlement have been raised by the United States for more than 17 years (and indeed flow from Appellate Body actions stretching back close to 20 years). A core problem is the lack of effective ability of Member states to correct erroneous decisions of the Appellate Body which has meant that a system intended to help Members resolve disputes between themselves has instead turned into a system where rights and obligations are not a reflection of agreements but rather the views of the Appellate Body members.

While there are important Members who are happy with a system where rights and obligations are identified by the Appellate Body whether or not trading partners agreed to such obligations or rights, the creation of rights and obligations through dispute settlement is a fundamental departure from the agreed terms of the Dispute Settlement Understanding and is unacceptable to the United States.  As no appeal can be heard where there are not at least three members of the Appellate Body, the Appellate Body will cease to operate (at least temporarily) after December 10, 2019, when the number of Appellate Body members declines from three to just one.

The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths over the last year or more to both identify its concerns and chronicle the history of the development of the issues.  Some Members have made proposals to address one or more U.S. concerns through modifications to the DSU or through other means. But the proposals to date have failed to address the question raised by the U.S. as to why the Appellate Body has been willing to depart from the requirements of the DSU in the first place.  Without understanding that question, why would modifications to the DSU result in a correction of action by the Appellate Body going forward?

The last Dispute Settlement Body meeting was held on September 30, and there was no resolution of the concerns of the U.S.  at that meeting.  There are future meetings (before December 10) presently scheduled for October 14 and November 22.  There does not appear to be any realistic scenario in which there is a resolution before December 10, which will result in the Appellate Body ceasing to operate until there is a resolution.

Some countries – the European Union and Canada – have agreed to create an “arbitration” substitute for disputes between themselves and can be expected to seek agreement with other Members.  See JOB/DSB/1/Add. 11.  Members have the right now to agree to arbitration in lieu of the panel or Appellate Body system.  DSU Art. 25.  The proposal by the EU and Canada has already resulted in questions from the U.S. not on whether arbitration among willing Members is permitted but whether, inter alia, the specific agreement between the EU and Canada exceeds the limits of the DSU by making arbitration decisions among willing Members somehow more than a resolution between the parties themselves.      

Conclusion

USTR Lighthizer has indicated that the world would need to create something like the WTO if it didn’t exist.  The U.S. under the Trump Administration just as under prior Administrations, has worked hard within the WTO to identify issues of concern and seek forward movement.  Therefore it is not a correct reading of the actions of the United States to suggest that the U.S. is not supportive of the WTO.

An organization that sovereign states subscribe to and adhere to and that can address a rapidly changing world environment for the benefit of all participants is what the WTO is supposed to be.  Without important reforms, unfortunately, the WTO will become less and less relevant to global commerce and to the lives of people around the world.   It is the responsibility of the WTO Members to identify and adopt the changes that are needed to achieve the reforms needed to keep the WTO relevant.  That takes leadership and an ability of the major players to understand what current economic realities prevent acceptable solutions.  

 Unfortunately, taking the dispute settlement situation as an exemplar, major players are failing to address the departures from the DSU that have caused such concerns for the United States for the last two decades.  That approach simply ensures a diminished relevance for the WTO and increased conflict between trading partners.