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China’s trade war with Australia — unwarranted and at odds with China’s portrayal of itself as a strong supporter of the WTO

China has imposed antidumping and countervailing duties on Australian barley and wine and has imposed import restrictions on a host of products from Australia including coal, lobsters, timber, red meat and cotton. While the first two products are allegedly pursuant to investigations conducted in a manner consistent with WTO Agreements, the other import restrictions are being done through verbal direction or under claims of labeling, pest or other bases. CNBC reported on December 17th the products restricted and the alleged justifications for import restrictions imposed by China on Australian goods. See CNBC, Here’s a list of the Australian exports hit by restrictions in China, December 17, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/18/australia-china-trade-disputes-in-2020.html. As CNBC reported,

“The relationship between the two countries has deteriorated since Australia supported a call for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Last month, Australian news outlets reported that the Chinese embassy there had threatened the
Australian government and handed over a list of alleged grievances toward Canberra.

“China has taken several measures this year that impede Australian imports, ranging from levying tariffs to imposing bans and restrictions.”

A press account in the Sydney Morning Herald on November 18, 2020, reviewed developments from an Australian perspective and included the “list of grievances” reportedly sent from China to Australia. See Sydney Morning Herald, ‘If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy’: Beijing’s fresh threat to Australia, November 18, 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/if-you-make-china-the-enemy-china-will-be-the-enemy-beijing-s-fresh-threat-to-australia-20201118-p56fqs.html. The “list of grievances” China claimed it had with Australia, copied in the article, is reproduced below:

The list of grievances from the Chinese embassy.

In a South China Morning Post article from December 20, experts in Australia and China indicate that China’s actions are intended to both punish Australia and dissuade other countries from taking similar actions that displease China that Australia has taken. See South China Morning Post, China-Australia relations: Beijing’s trade restrictions are meant as a warning to Canberra, but will they work?, December 20, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3114635/china-australia-relations-beijings-trade-restrictions-are.

It is clear that the import restrictions, if taken for the reasons identified in the list of grievances above, are unjustified and violations of China’s WTO obligations.

WTO challenge filed by Australia on China’s antidumping and countervailing duties imposed on Australian barley

While Australia has been attempting to deal with China’s unilateral actions diplomatically, on December 16th, it filed a request for consultations with China at the WTO on the antidumping and countervailing duties being imposed on Australian barley. The request for consultations was circulated to WTO Members on December 21. See CHINA – ANTI-DUMPING AND COUNTERVAILING DUTY MEASURES ON BARLEY FROM AUSTRALIA, REQUEST FOR CONSULTATIONS BY AUSTRALIA, WT/DS598/1, G/L/1382, G/ADP/D135/1, G/SCM/D130/1, 21 December 2020; WTO press release, Dispute Settlement, Australia initiates WTO dispute complaint against Chinese barley duties, 21 December 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news_e.htm. While some press accounts have characterized the WTO challenge as increasing the tensions between the two countries, the reality is that the request for consultations is a proper response by Australia to an action by China that it perceives violates China’s WTO obligations. See The Guardian, Australia escalates China trade dispute with WTO action, December 15, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/dec/16/australia-escalates-china-trade-dispute-with-wto-action.

The U.S. and other WTO Members have been concerned for years that China uses trade remedy cases as a means not of pursuing bona fide industry concerns but rather as a means of retaliating against trading partners who take actions, even if WTO authorized, that are against Chinese products. Looking at the breadth of the request for consultations filed by Australia, it would appear that Australia views the investigations as similarly suspect. The request for consultations is embedded below and contains 26 alleged violations of WTO obligations by China in the barley investigations.

598-1

If there is a failure by China to conform to WTO obligations and end the unilateral and unauthorized actions against Australia, one should expect to see additional cases filed at the WTO by Australia to defend its rights.

Comments

China has been a major beneficiary of the multilateral trading system since joining the WTO at the end of 2001. While China has implemented many of the obligations it took on to join the WTO, there has long been concern that China’s implementation is subject to unilateral action against other Members where China is unhappy with positions taken by other Members. At the WTO, in arguing against taking up issues like the need for Members to converge to market-based conditions, China has argued that others (in particular the U.S.) are ignoring core principles of the WTO, such as most favored nation treatment. When one considers the range of actions China has taken against Australia in 2020, it is clear that they view most favored nation treatment obligations to WTO Members as subject to China’s political whims. China’s actions are unwarranted. For a nation wanting to be a leader in developing the trading system, its actions send the wrong signals to its trading partners.

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,” https://myemail.constantcontact.com/CHINA-AND-AUSTRALIAN-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.