Dispute Settlement

U.S.-China Phase 1 Trade Agreement Signed on January 15 — An Impressive Agreement if Enforced

There has been a lot of anticipation for what the Phase 1 agreement between the U.S. and China actually contains. Earlier today, following the signing ceremony at the White House, The Economic and Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, Phase 1 was released. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Economic_And_Trade_Agreement_Between_The_United_States_And_China_Text.pdf

I’ve just finished reading through the agreement.  My first blush read is that the agreement has a lot of positive potential for the United States. While enforcability is always a critical consideration and particularly based on the U.S. experience with other commitments made by China in the past, there are some chapters which have both great specificity on obligations and specific timeline commitments that should make at least those chapters potential important improvements.

A quick overview of the agreement follows.

Intellectual Property

Chapter 1 on intellectual property is quite interesting as it lays out a large number of obligations China is taking on by individual IP issue and confirms that US system already has such obligations.  The chapter is broken into the following topics:

Trade secrets and confidential business information;

Pharmaceutical-related intellectual property;

Patents;

Geographical indications;

Manufacture and export of pirated and counterfeit goods;

Bad-faith trademarks;

Bilateral cooperation on intellectual property protection;

Implementation;

The specificity of commitments and timing for action are important in hopefully making this a really important chapter for companies with intellectual property needs and current concerns in China’s performance on such matters. USTR’s fact sheet on the IP chapter presents the Administration’s view of what was achieved. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-IP_Fact_Sheet.pdf. My own view is that Chapter 1 is an important plus for the U.S.

Forced Technology Transfer

The technology transfer chapter is limited and doesn’t appear to be more enforceable than the multiple laws, etc. China has had for years. While the chapter states the obligations, China has historically been of the view that technology transfer is not enforced in fact. The Administration understandably views the chapter as important, and the pressure of the 301 investigation and tariffs that remain may make the chapter more valuable than the general statements it consists of suggest. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-Technology_Transfer_Fact_Sheet.pdf In my view, this is more of a placeholder chapter. Hopefully it will be honored in fact but the past doesn’t show that as a high probability.

Trade in Food and Agricultural Products

The third chapter on agriculture could be very important for changing the U.S. agricultural export scene as the chapter goes through a large number of products, establishes timelines and standards against which US products will be evaluated and or requires acceptance of various US products that have met US standards. The Administration gets straight A’s for the breadth and depth of this chapter in my view. There are seventeen annexes that take up the following topics or products:

Annex 1, agricultural cooperation

Annex 2, dairy and infant formula

Annex 3, poultry

Annex 4, beef

Annex 5, live breeding cattle

Annex 6, pork

Annex 7, meat, poultry and processed meat

Annex 8, electronic meat and poultry information system

Annex 9, aquatic products

Annex 10, rice

Annex 11, plant health

Annex 12, feed additives, premixes, compound feed, distillers’ dried grains, and distillers’ dried grains with solubles

Annex 13, pet food and non-ruminant derived animal feed

Annex 14, tariff rate quotas

Annex 15, domestic support

Annex 16, agricultural biotechnology

Annex 17, food safety

The chapter also includes an Appendix which lists beef, pork and poultry products considered not eligible for import into China which US producers will need to review. There are also side letters released with the agreement that address products and producers who will have immediate access to China consistent with the chapter. The Administration has a fact sheet on agriculture chapter in total and then on individual products. The chapter fact sheet’s link follows. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-Ag_Summary_Long_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Financial Services

The fourth chapter on financial services is also quite interesting and is the one chapter where there are specific US obligations identified (typically considering expeditiously pending applications by Chinese financial service providers in specific areas).  US companies have had many problems for the last 20 years in terms of China’s permitting access.  Looks to me that the chapter, if implemented (and there are timelines, etc.) could be important for US companies. Subjects covered include banking services, credit rating services, electronic payment services, financial asset management (distressed debt) services, insurance services, and securities, fund management, futures services. The Administration’s fact sheet on financial services provides its views on the importance of the chapter. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-Financial_Services_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Macroeconomic Policies and Exchange Rate Matters and Transparency

The fifth chapter on currency contains four articles. One is on general provisions. The second is on exchange rate practices. The third addresses transparency. And the fourth article covers the enforcement mechanism. While China was widely viewed as engaging in reducing the value of its currency for many years and was last year found by the Trump Administration to be a currency manipulator, most economists have viewed China as less problematic on its currency in recent years.  It is important to have a chapter focused on transparency and currency practices. Unclear how effective the enforcement provisions outlined will be in fact. But hopefully, China’s actions will not raise concerns under this chapter going forward. The Administration’s fact sheet presents its views of what was accomplished in the chapter. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-Macroeconomic_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Expanding Trade

The sixth chapter is potentially commercially important as it addresses China’s commitments to increase purchases from the United States in both goods and services. The actual text clarifies that the $200 billion additional imports by China over 2017 levels are the combination of increases over 2017 in 2020 and 2021 versus being a requirement for each year.  Such growth is more achievable and less unrealistic in my view.

The targets for growth are presented in four groups – manufactured goods, agricultural goods, energy, services and then the categories that are considered within each of the four groups are shown on pages 6-4 – 6-23 of the Agreement.  The growth above 2017 levels for the four broad categories is shown below.

Products/Services20202021Total
manufactured goods$32.9 BN$44.8 BN$77.7 BN
agriculture$12.5 BN$19.5 BN$32.0 BN
energy$18.5 BN$33.9 BN$52.4 BN
services$12.8 BN$25.1 BN$37.9 BN
Total$76.7 BN$123.3 BN$200.0 BN

A lot of attention will be focused on whether the purchases actually happen.  Actions under Chapter 3 will directly improve US exports of agricultural goods and those of Chapter 4 will improve the financial services portion of the services target.  The IP chapter could be affect manufactured goods, etc. So much of the Phase 1 Agreement should result in a natural increase in imports from the U.S. as longstanding barriers are removed or otherwise overcome.

The Administration’s fact sheet on expanded trade can be found here. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/phase%20one%20agreement/Phase_One_Agreement-Expanding_Trade_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Bilateral Evaluation and Dispute Resolution

A lot of focus will be given to Chapter 7 because of the importance of enforcement. However, as noted above, enforcement should be easier where there has been the level of detail/specificity as to obligations and timelines for implementing individual obligations that exists in many of the chapters.

On enforcement, Chapter 7, lays out the basic purpose of the bilateral evaluation and dispute resolution arrangement in Article 7.1. Paragraph 2 of that Article provides the objectives, reflecting both the U.S. desire for speed and the Chinese desire for mutual respect and avoidance of escalation.

“The purpose and madate of the Arrangaement are to effectively implement this Agreement, to resolve issues in the economic and trade relationship of the Parties in a fair, expeditious, and respectful manner, and to avoid the escalation of economic and trade disputes and their impact on other areas of the Parties’ relationship. The Parties recognize the importance of strengthened bilateral communications in this effort.”

There are various elements to the chapter including a high level Trade Framework Group (USTR and designated Vice Premier of the PRC).  Each country will have a Bilateral Evaluation and Dispute Resolution Office which will, inter alia, handle disputes and includes opportunities for appeals on short time lines, referral to USTR and the Vice Premier and the ability of the complaining party to take action if not resolved with either no retaliation (complained against party views action taken as in good faith) or the need to withdraw from the agreement for the party complained against if the belief is that the action was not taken in good faith.

I believe that the Chapter will effectively help the Parties resolve disputes particularly with regard to the commitments in Chapter 1, 3,  4 and 6. 

Conclusion

The Phase 1 Agreement is an important agreement that will achieve some significant market access opening for U.S. producers into the Chinese market, improved intellectual property protection in China, expanded market access for U.S. financial service providers and hopefully make some progress on reducing or eliminating forced technology transfer and limit concerns about currency misalignment. My hat’s off to the negotiators for an impressive result. There remain important issues not yet addressed bilaterally that will hopefully be taken up in Phase 2 talks, but Phase 1 is an important accomplishment.

European Union Moves to Authorize Retaliation in Disputes Where There is No Alternative to the Appellate Body Pursued

With the WTO’s Appellate Body not able to handle appeals at the present time because of diminished membership, the EU has put forward a proposal that would authorize the EU to retaliate whenever a dispute where the EU has received what it views as a favorable ruling is appealed by the other party during the period when any such appeal cannot be considered by the Appellate Body. They have also proposed such actions in bilateral agreements where they view the other party as frustrating dispute settlement. https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/policy-making/enforcement-and-protection/. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/docs_autres_institutions/commission_europeenne/com/2019/0623/COM_COM(2019)0623_EN.pdf

The proposal is not adopted as yet, and the EU portrays the initiative as a way of protecting EU interests and consistent with its efforts to increase enforcement of its negotiated trading rights. This proposal, if adopted, will put pressure on smaller trading partners to join alternative dispute settlement approaches such as the arbitration approach the EU has agreed to with Canada and separately with Norway.

The proposal doesn’t address what the EU expects trading partners to take against EU products where it files an appeal (such as the EU did against the second 21.5 panel decision on December 6 which found against the EU in terms of compliance with its obligations on Airbus). WT/DS316/43 (11 December 2019)(notice of appeal); WT/DS316/RW2 (2 December 2019)(panel report on 2nd 21.5 request). But at least for larger WTO members, if the EU files an appeal that will not be heard during this interim period while Members seek ways to resolve open issues, the EU proposal invites similar action by such other Members. Retaliation has, of course, already been authorized for the U.S. against the EU for its WTO-inconsistent actions on Airbus. But should there be other cases that the US (or other countries who opt not to use arbitration under DSU Article 25 or not to simply adopt panel decisions without appeal) brings against the EU which the EU loses in part or whole, the EU is inviting retaliation without opportunity to correct its practices and without arbitration of the amount of retaliation being available. Virtually every Member who has been authorized to take retaliation has been subject to arbitration with amount authorized typically significantly less than the retaliating Member has sought. Thus, the EU may find its approach has costs for EU industry as well.

At the last Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”) meeting of 2019 held on December 18, the effort to get the process for selecting Appellate Body members started was again unsuccessful because of opposition from the United States. So there will be some considerable period when there is no functioning Appellate Body and only four of the appeals pending on December 10 will be completed by the AB members who were involved in appeals prior to December 10. However, besides the EU efforts with Canada and Norway (which is reportedly being pursued with additional countries), there are alternative approaches being explored by other WTO Members including agreeing to adopt panel decisions without appeals or developing a different arbitration approach to that presented by the EU (e.g., reports that Australia and Brazil are exploring a different system).

For the United States, the U.S. indicated that it had filed on December 18th an appeal from a panel report in DS436, India’s resort to Article 21.5 of the DSU in its challenge to U.S. countervailing duty orders on hot-rolled steel products. The notice of appeal from the U.S. (WT/DS436/21) is not yet available on the WTO webpage. At the DSB meeting, the U.S. made the following comments on the WTO dispute settlement system:

“And the United States is determined to bring about real WTO reform, including to ensure that the WTO dispute settlement system reinforces the WTO’s critical negotiating and monitoring functions, and does not undermine those functions by overreaching gap-filling.

“As discussions among Members continue, the dispute settlement system continues to function.

“The central objective of that system remains unchanged: to assist the parties in the resolution of a dispute. As before, Members have many methods to resolve a dispute, including through bilateral engagement and mutually agreed solutions.

“For instance, today, the United States appealed the compliance Panel’s report in DS436.

“While no division can be established to hear this appeal at this time, the United States will confer with India so the parties may determine the way forward in this dispute, including whether the matters at issue may be resolved at this stage or to consider alternatives to the appellate process.

“Consistent with the aim of the WTO dispute settlement system, the parties should make efforts to find a positive solution to their dispute, and this remains the U.S. preference.

“And the United States will continue to insist that WTO rules be followed by the WTO dispute settlement system. We will continue our efforts and our discussions with Members to seek a solution on these important issues.”

Statements by the United States at the Meeting of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body, Geneva, December 18, 2019, “6. Appellate Body Appointments, Proposal by Some WTO Members (WT/DSB/W/609/Rev.15), https://geneva.usmission.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/290/Dec18.DSB_.Stmt_.as-deliv.fin_.public-1.pdf.

It is certainly the case that the U.S. and the EU have very different views of the role of dispute settlement and the Appellate Body in particular and whether there are major problems with the operation of dispute settlement over the first twenty-five years of WTO operation. But the EU is traveling down a path of increasingly ignoring WTO limitations on its actions, a charge that they make with regard to the United States.

For example, when a WTO member disagrees with an action of a trading partner, it is expected to seek consultations and, if necessary, file a dispute, await resolution of the dispute, permit a reasonable period of time for implementation if a violation was found before retaliation is permitted. Yet the EU (followed by many other countries — Canada, Mexico, China, Russia, Turkey, India) created a facially false basis for retaliating against the United States without pursuing the required steps, when the U.S. took action under a domestic law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended) on imports of steel and aluminum based on a report finding threats to U.S. national security from such imports. The EU and the other countries have claimed the action was a disguised safeguard action permitting immediate retaliation. WTO members don’t have to agree with another Member’s actions, but unilateral action is not authorized and the creation of false predicates to justify retaliation don’t change the action from being unilateral and unjustified.

The proposed regulation represents one more step by the EU to create its own system of enforcement regardless of the agreements to which it is a party using circumstances it does not like to justify its own unilateral actions. Let’s hope that whether adopted or not, the EU proceeds cautiously and reflects on its own actions consistency with international agreements.

The WTO Dispute Settlement System – Closing Out 2019 and Implications for 2020

The week of December 2, 2019 saw WTO Members engaged in a variety of year end activities including two added meetings – the resumption of the November 22 Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”) meeting to explore how pending appeals would be handled post December 10 and another Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration meeting to see if Members could agree to a modified proposed budget to address U.S. concerns on funding for the Appellate Body (“AB”) in light of the imminent reduction of AB members from three to one.

December 3, 2019 DSB Meeting on Pending Appeals

The resumption of the DSB meeting did not result in agreement for how all pending appeals will be addressed with most pending appeals unlikely to be resolved by the current AB members, although it has been reported that the DSB Chair David Walker had indicated that appeals would proceed on four cases (of fourteen pending on December 3) – the two plain paper packaging appeals on Australia’s programs (Honduras (DS435) and the Dominican Republic (DS441), Ukraine’s challenge to various measures in the Russian Federation on the importation of raailway equipment (DS499) and the appeal in the case on U.S. countervailing duties on supercalendered paper from Canada (DS505).

The December 3 resumed DSB meeting did show the continued distance between at least certain WTO members in their view of one of the issues raised by the United States — whether the Dispute Settlement Understanding limits who may authorize individuals to serve as Appellate Body members to the WTO Membership through the DSB. For example, the EU statement confirmed that it viewed the Appellate Body, through Rule 15 of the Working Procedures, as qualified to permit members of the AB whose terms have expired to continue working on appeals that started while they were members. See EU statement at the regular DSB meeting on 3 December 2019, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/71496/eu-statement-regular-dsb-meeting-3-december-2019_en.

The U.S. statement reviewed their year long effort to get an answer to the question “do Members agree that the Appellate Body does not have the authority to ‘deem’ a person who is no longer an Appellate Body member to nonetheless continue to be a member and decide appeals?” From statements by the EU and presumably others, the U.S. concluded that “members are not in agreement on this fundamental question.” As such the U.S. concluded that “there will be no consensus between Members on how to proceed on the Appellate Body by December 10” and that “[i]n the absence of any shared understanding of the underlying causes and of appropriate solutions, it will be for the parties to each dispute to engage with each other to determine an appropriate way forward.” Statement of the United States at the Meeting of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (Dec. 3), https://geneva.usmission.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/290/Nov22.DSB_.Reconvene.Item7_.as_.deliv_.fin_.public.pdf.

Since the DSB meeting on December 3, Morocco withdrew its appeal of a panel decision, Morocco – Anti-Dumping Measures on Certain Hot-Rolled Steel from Turkey, indicating that its antidumping measure had terminated in September. See WT/DS513/7 (5 December 2019). And on December 6, the European Union filed an appeal from the second compliance panel ruling in the Airbus case where the panel had found the EU had not brought its programs into compliance with WTO obligations (panel report was circulated on December 2, 2019). See https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/ds316oth_06dec19_e.htm. Thus, as of December 7, there remain 14 appeals pending before the Appellate Body.

December 5, 2019 Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration Consideration of WTO 2020 Budget

Meanwhile, the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration meeting of December 5 resulted in approval of the modified budget proposal for the WTO for 2020. The budget will now be before the General Council for approval in its final meeting of 2019 held on December 9-11. See Agenda item 20, WT/GC/W/793. The U.S. had worked with the Director-General to identify changes in the budget to reduce funds available for Appellate Body members in light of the current situation and only agreed to proceed with the budget for 2020, postponing the 2021 budget approval process until next year. A number of WTO Members, including the EU, China, India and Turkey had expressed concerns about the modifications to the budget, but approval at the Committee level was secured.

Reductions in two budget line items were reportedly made, reducing funding from $2.791 million to $200,000, presumably sufficient to handle appeals that do go forward through the Appellate Body. What such changes in funding will mean for the Appellate Body Secretariat is not yet clear but logically if there is no functioning Appellate Body, there is no need for an Appellate Body Secretariat until such time as the AB has sufficient members to once again hear appeals.

Other Issues Potentially Affecting the Operation of the Dispute Settlement System

Still unknown is whether current AB members whose term expires on December 10 will agree to continue on appeals after that date even on the four appeals where hearings have been had and that press reports indicated that Amb. Walker, the DSB Chair, had indicated would proceed post December 10. To the extent one of the current AB members opts not to continue on any appeal after the end of his term, that would presumably reduce the number of pending appeals that could be heard as it is likely there would be no continuing AB member who could be substituted (would depend on the composition of the AB Division presently hearing the appeal).

Moreover, as one of the four pending appeals identified in press articles as likely to be completed is a case where the U.S. is a party, it is also not clear what the U.S. position will be on that appeal post December 10. It may have agreed to have those appeals where hearings have been had completed if the current AB members are willing to continue to serve. Press accounts are unclear if that is the case.

There is also the question as to whether the Appellate Body Secretariat is disbanded pending the resumption of a functioning Appellate Body. Press reports have indicated that this is possible/likely with existing staff having the option to leave the WTO or accept positions in other WTO divisions. That would obviously make sense from a budget perspective as well as there is no institutional value in paying people who have no discernible workload.

December 6 Trade Negotiations Committee Heads of Delegation Meeting

There is always a flurry of activity ahead of the last General Council meeting of the year. December 6 saw a meeting of heads of delegation for the Trade Negotiations Committee (“TNC”). The TNC is the Committee that oversees ongoing negotiations within the WTO. While there are very important issues being pursued by various groups within the WTO under the jurisdiction of the TNC, for purposes of this post, the issue of interest will be the extent to which the dispute settlement system is a subject of debate.

As the minutes of the meeting are not publicly available, reference is made to three statements – one by Director-General Azevedo, one by EU Ambassador Joao Aguiar Machado and one by Ambassador Dennis Shea of the United States at the meeting. Other relevant statements were undoubtedly made as well.

The WTO put out a news release on Director-General’s statement to the TNC Heads of Delegation Meeting. The long excerpt below provides the Director-General’s views on the state of play on both the dispute settlement system and on the 2020 budget:

“In his remarks, the Director-General said that while the effective suspension of appellate review of WTO dispute rulings is a serious challenge to the global trade body’s adjudication function, it ‘does not mean the end of the multilateral trading system’.
“‘Existing WTO rules still apply. WTO disciplines and principles will continue to underpin world trade. And members will continue to use WTO rules to resolve trade conflicts – in regular WTO bodies, through consultations, via dispute settlement panels, and through any other means envisaged in the WTO agreements,’ he said.
“Members have important decisions to make, with implications for the WTO and for their respective economies, DG Azevêdo said.
“Where we go from here is in your hands. What we do – or just as significantly, what we fail to do – will define the trajectory of this organization.
“On rule-making, your choices could contribute to restoring certainty in the global economy, and help governments manage interdependence in a fast-changing world.
“On the implementation of existing commitments, you have scope to make regular committee work an even more effective vehicle for fostering compliance and addressing concerns about each other’s trade policies.
“And on dispute settlement, you could restore the impartial, effective, efficient two-step review that most members say they want.
“Alternatively, your choices could open the door to more uncertainty, unconstrained unilateral retaliation – and less investment, less growth, and less job creation.”
‘The DG welcomed a compromise reached in the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration on the WTO’s budget for 2020. The committee’s favourable recommendation has been forwarded to the General Council for endorsement during its 9-11 December session.
“The proposed budget compromise is the result of flexibility and cooperation among members, both here in Geneva and in capitals. It represents a pragmatic response that preserves the WTO system amid turbulence in the wider international system – turbulence that we cannot wish away. I am counting on your help with approval in the General Council.”
DG Azevêdo urges WTO members to find ways forward on
the dispute settlement system, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/tnc_06dec19_e.htm.

Ambassador Machado of the EU’s statement at the meeting is a good representation of the EU position over time and shows the continued sharp difference in views the EU has with the U.S.

“Since our last meeting, the situation of the WTO has further deteriorated. Not only the discontinuation of the Appellate Body’s work has become an evident prospect, but attempts to obstruct the functioning of this Organization through the budget discussion have shattered Members’ confidence in teh WTO. This has diverted us from progressing our negotiation agenda or from finding ways to resume nominations of the Appellate Body Members, which should be the priority. While the European Union is alarmed about the current state of affairs at the WTO, we remain strongly determined to address the challenges in front of us.

“First, we remain resolute to find ways to restore a two-step dispute settlement system at the the WTO, and resume nomination of Appellate Body’s Members as soon as possible. Next week’s General Council will be crucial in this respect and we invite all Members to engage constructively in finding solutions.”

https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/world-trade-organization-wto/71633/eu-statement-ambassador-jo%C3%A3o-aguiar-machado-trade-negotiations-committeeheads-delegation-6_en

Ambassador Shea’s statement, like that of other Ambassadors at the meeting, covered a range of issues deemed important for the TNC and its work going forward. On dispute settlement, Amb. Shea provided the following thoughts:

“Foruth, with respect to dispute settlement, the United States has engaged constructively over the past year, providing detailed statements in the DSB and the General Council outlining clear positions and articulating our longstanding concerns with the functioning of the Appellate Body. Unfortunately, we have yet to see the same level of engagement from other Members. We have asked repeatedly, if the words of the DSU are already clear, then why have the practices of the Appellate Body strayed so far? This is not an academic question; we will not be able to move forward until we are confident we have addressed the underlying problems and have found real solutions to prevent their recurrence.”

https://geneva.usmission.gov/2019/12/06/ambassador-sheas-statement-at-the-wto-trade-negotiating-committee-heads-of-delegation-meeting/

General Council Meeting, December 9-11, 2019

When the General Council meets starting on Monday, December 11th, among its twenty-four agenda items are two that deal with either dispute settlement (Agenda Item 5) or the 2020 budget (Agenda Item 20). Both agenda items will likely generate a great deal of discussion.

Presumably on December 9th, the General Council will get to agenda item 5, “Informal Process on Matters Related to the Functioning of the Appellate Body – Report by the Facilitator and Draft Decision on the Functioning of the Appellate Body.” The original draft Decision and the revised draft have been discussed in earlier posts and reflects efforts by Amb. Walker (serving as Facilitator to the General Council) to identify possible solutions to the concerns raised by the United States over the last several years on the functioning of the Appellate Body. There will be many WTO Members – undoubtedly including the EU, China, India and others – who will support the draft Decision and urge its adoption. In their view adoption of the Decision would clear the path for the Dispute Settlement Body to start the process for finding replacements for the six Appellate Body seats that either are currently or will be empty after December 10.

The United States has made it clear that the draft Decision does not resolve its concerns, most importantly because there is no understanding of why the Appellate Body has felt free to disregard the limits on its activities.

So expect Agenda item 5 to be contentious but result in no agreed decision being adopted.

On agenda item 20, “Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration – Reports on Meetings of April, June, September, October and November”, this item will likely be taken up on the 10th or 11th (assume the 11th). While again there will likely be a large number of statements and concerns raised about the process, it is expected that the 2020 budget for the WTO will be approved by the General Council.

Regular DSB Meeting of December 18, 2019

The agenda for the upcoming last regular DSB meeting of 2019 is contained in WTO/AIR/DSB/90 dated 6 December 2019. The relevant item for this post, is agenda item 6 which takes up the latest iteration of the proposal to have the DSB make a decision to launch a selection process to fill the six Appellate Body member slots that are or will be open. The proposal is essentially identical to earlier versions and is supported by 117 of the 164 WTO Members. See WT/DSB/W/609/Rev.15, 6 December 2019.

As it has in the past, the United States will not support the proposal, and the year 2019 will end with the Appellate Body unable to hear new appeals, unable to proceed with many of the pending appeals and with WTO Members exploring different options for how they will handle disputes going forward.

Implications for 2020

The 2020 budget reflects the contraction in activity by the Appellate Body even assuming the four pending appeals are completed in 2020. So 2020 will be a year of no or limited Appellate Body activity.

Major players such as the EU, China, India and others are far removed from acknowledging the deep concerns that have been expressed by the United States on the functioning of the Appellate Body, and in many cases disagree that there is even a problem. This impasse suggests that progress on reestablishing a two-step dispute settlement system will be slow if it occurs at all in 2020.

For some, there may be a hope that U.S. elections in late 2020 could lead to a different Administration in 2021 and a different posture on the WTO dispute settlement system. Change may or may not occur regardless of which Administration is in place in 2021. But there is little doubt that 2020 will be a year in which WTO members will need to consider other approaches to resolving disputes. One obvious alternative could be through arbitration under Article 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding (the EU has a model it has adopted with Canada and separately with Norway; other approaches could obviously be pursued). Members could also agree to not appeal from panel decisions. Negotiations can also provide ways to address matters of concern to trading partners, as can greater transparency and increased activity in WTO Committees permitting Members to understand and comment on practices of trading partners.

Change inevitably brings discomfort and uncertainty. December 10 and the inability to appeal new panel decisions after that date is the bookmark date for change. 2020 will undoubtedly be a year of discomfort and uncertainty. Let us hope that the WTO Members can find a path to addressing U.S. concerns in a meaningful manner and that an improved dispute settlement system is the result.

Additional Meetings of the WTO Dispute Settlement Body and Budget, Finance and Administration Committee set for December 3 and 5 in search of Resolution of Outstanding Issues.

The WTO’s last General Council meeting of 2019 is scheduled for next Monday-Wednesday (December 9-11). There are unresolved issues on what will happen with pending appeals before the Appellate Body and whether the modified 2020 budget that was introduced last week but received opposition from a number of Members will be approved. Not surprisingly, two additional meetings have been added to the WTO schedule for this week and can be seen in the section of the WTO webpage that shows pending meetings at the WTO.

The first is technically a resumption of the November 22 Dispute Settlement Body meeting to take up issue 7, “pending appeals”. The second is yet another Budget, Finance and Administration Committee meeting to seek approval of the proposed budget as modified by the Director-General in response to the issues raised by the United States on Appellate Body compensation and other matters.

As reviewed in earlier posts, the U.S. is seeking reductions in the budget within the WTO for Appellate Body [“AB”] matters in light of the reduced number of AB members and the likely inability to pursue appeals for some period of time after December 10. The U.S. also is opposed to former members of the AB continuing to hear most of the pending appeals after December 10. There are 13 reported pending appeals before the Appellate Body that will not be resolved prior to December 10. Resolution of how or if those appeals will proceed will presumably be relevant to the resolution of what funds are needed in 2020 for the AB in the proposed budget. Thus, the activities this week are important to providing clarification of what activity by the Appellate Body will occur prior to the resolution of the U.S. concerns on activities by the AB that are inconsistent with existing Dispute Settlement Understanding requirements.

The WTO General Council has had Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand (the current Chair of the Dispute Settlement Body) serving as a facilitator to see if solutions to the U.S. concerns could be found. At an informal General Council meeting of the Heads of Delegations held last Friday, November 29th, press reports indicate that modifications to the draft General Council Decision on the functioning of the Appellate Body that were contained in WT/GC/W/791 received the green light from Members. This indicates that the draft decision could be adopted at the upcoming General Council meeting.

It would be surprising if the modified draft Decision solves the impasse on filling AB vacancies. There are two additions to the draft General Council Decision from the version (JOB/GC/222 Annex) that the United States had dismissed as inadequate in the last General Council meeting on October 15. See my post of Nov. 4, 2019 on the Draft General Council Decision which quotes the U.S. position in full. https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2019/11/04/wtos-appellate-body-reform-the-draft-general-council-decision-on-functioning-of-the-appellate-body/

First, a paragraph has been added acknowledging that the Appellate Body has not always functioned as intended. “Acknowledging that the Appellate Body has, in some respects, not been functioning as intended under the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes (the ‘DSU’)”. Such a paragraph is undoubtedly important to the U.S. as it reflects agreement that there have been problems – the U.S. position for many years that some other Members have not publicly acknowledged.

Second, paragraph 9 in WT/GC/W/791 has been added to a section previously titled “Municipal Law” but now renamed “Scope of Appeal”. The added paragraph reads, “9. Article 17.6 of the DSU restricts matters that can be raised on appeal to issues of law covered in the relevant panel report and legal interpretations developed by that panel.” The existing DSU limits the scope of appeal as reflected in this new paragraph. While the U.S. presumably supports the language, it is not clear that the concerns that the U.S. has raised about the Appellate Body opining on issues not raised by either party are fully addressed in this paragraph. Should the panel address issues not raised by the parties, the language would indicate the AB can address such issues in an appeal. The two documents are included below.

WTGCW791

JobsGC222

The press article indicates that it is not clear that the U.S. will approve the draft GC decision at the upcoming GC. Washington Trade Daily, December 2, 2019 at 1-2. Indeed, considering the October 15 statement of the U.S. at the General Council meeting, it would be surprising if the few modifications to the earlier draft would be viewed by the United States as adequate. For example on the longstanding problem of creating obligations or diminishing rights of Member, the draft Decision makes no changes to language which simply repeated part of DSU Articles 3.2 and 19.2. As reviewed in earlier notes, there is unlikely to be correction of the overreach problem if 3.2 and 19.2 aren’t clarified to identify situations where obligations are created (e.g., if gaps are filled, silence is construed or ambiguities clarified). Moreover, the U.S. concern reflects a more than 20 year problem of the balance of rights and obligations being altered. Nothing in the draft identifies how Members rights will be rebalanced.

if the U.S. joins other Members in approving the draft Decision at the upcoming General Council meeting on December 9-11, the U.S. could view the adoption of the decision as simply one step in the process needed before the U.S. will lift its hold on filling vacancies. Stay tuned.

The WTO budget and the Appellate Body — Potential Fireworks at the end of 2019

On December 11, the WTO Appellate Body will be down to one member based on the current impasse created by the U.S. insistence that significant problems with the dispute settlement system be addressed before new Appellate Body members are added. Earlier posts have reviewed the impasse and underlying issues at some length.

On November 12, the U.S. reportedly blocked adoption of the 2020-2021 budget proposal from the WTO Director-General at the meeting of the Committee on Budget, Finance and Administration. There were a series of written questions about the budget received from Members ahead of the November 12 meeting, including a six page document entitled, “CBFA questions received from the United States relating to the coordination, governance and administrative responsibilities of the multi-donor voluntary contribution trust funds”. WT/BFA/INF/6, 7 November 2019. The written questions are not publicly available at the present time.

A version of the 2020-2021 Budget Proposal from the Director-General that is available publicly is from 10 September 2019 and is document WT/BFA/W/492 (38 pages). Pages 23-24 review the budget proposal for the Appellate Body and its Secretariat (Section 3.2). The proposal shows the budget for the Appellate Body Secretariat staff at 4.573 million Swiss Francs/year, Appellate Body Members Fees and other temporary assistance as 871,000 Swiss Francs/year, other resources as 136,000 Swiss Francs/year and contributions to special reserves as being 2.0 million Swiss Francs/year. In mid-November 2019, 1 Swiss Franc was worth $1.01.

Press reports on the WTO meeting indicate that the U.S. was opposed to the budget for various reasons, including the provision of funds for the Appellate Body (AB) and its Secretariat for 2020-21 because of the impasse which would render the AB dysfunctional (arguably meaning no funds would be required until the impasse is resolved).

The U.S. also raised questions as to where funds for arbitration under DSU Article 25 would come from, including whether funds would be diverted from the AB. The EU has concluded agreements entitled “Interim Appeal Arbitration Pursuant to Article 25 of the DSU” with Canada and separately with Norway. These agreements call for the use of former AB members to act as arbitrators (in groups of three the same as AB Divisions) and use of AB Secretariat staff for such arbitrations.

Concern was also expressed on what was done with AB funds from 2018 and presumably 2019 because of the reduced number of AB members. See, e.g., Washington Trade Daily, November 13, 2019, “US Blocks WTO Budget” at 1-2; Bloombergs, Bryce Baschuk, November 12, 2019, “U.S. Raises Prospect of Blocking Passage of WTO Budget”, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-12/u-2-is-said-to-raise-prospect-of-blocking-passage-of-wto-budget.

The U.S. intends to develop its concerns on budget matters in multiple fora within the WTO. For example, the U.S. has added an agenda item (no. 4) to the upcoming Dispute Settlement Body meeting on November 22, “4. Statement by the United States on systemic concerns regarding the compensation of Appellate Body members”. WTO/AIR/DSB/89, 12 November 2019.

One can envision a number of concerns that could be raised by the United States. For example, based on its concerns about former AB members continuing to handle disputes after their term has expired, the U.S. could raise concerns about any payments (fees and expenses, etc.) to such individuals. Similarly, the U.S. could raise concerns over the total compensation including expenses that go to AB members whose work is part time only, particularly if the overall level of expenditures per AB member exceeds what full time compensation is for judges at appeals courts or the Supreme Court.

It is not clear if the U.S. will use the agenda item at the DSB meeting to also question whether WTO Members can utilize Appellate Body resources and staff for DSU Article 25 arbitration work or whether that issue will be left for the budget discussion.

Based on the Budget Finance and Administration Committee meeting of this past week, the U.S. statement at the November 22 DSB meeting is likely to be a detailed review of its concerns on how AB and Secretariat funding has been handled. The U.S. statement will almost certainly see responses from many other Members defending the status quo. The conflict on the budget issue adds to the tension among the membership on the likely continued impasse on the AB vacancies and the imminent shut down of the AB for future appeals pending a resolution on the many concerns raised by the U.S. on the functioning of the dispute settlement system.

The current approved budget ends at the end of 2019. So achieving an approved budget in the remaining weeks of 2019 is critical to the continued functioning of the WTO. Whether the U.S. will block the budget, achieve some accommodation or simply approve the budget in the coming weeks creates the focus for WTO Members. There is a three day General Council meeting on December 9-11, and there is an assumption that the matter will be resolved by then, if it is to be resolved this year. What is certain is that the last weeks of 2019 will see increased tensions within the WTO and likely fireworks at formal meetings.

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. 

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.