Global Business Dialogue TTALK

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.