At the last WTO Ministerial Conference held in December 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the U.S., the EU and Japan announced efforts to cooperate to develop WTO reforms to address concerns in areas such as industrial excess capacity, massive government subsidies, state owned enterprises, forced technology transfers, local content requirements and other matters. The joint statement released on December 12, 2017 is included in a press release from USTR and is reproduced below:
“Joint Statement by the United States, European Union and Japan at MC11
“Mrs. Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Trade, Mr. Hiroshige Seko, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan and Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, United States Trade Representative met in Buenos Aires, Argentine Republic on the 12th of December 2017 and agreed to strengthen our commitment to ensure a global level playing field.
“We shared the view that severe excess capacity in key sectors exacerbated by government-financed and supported capacity expansion, unfair competitive conditions caused by large market-distorting subsidies and state owned enterprises, forced technology transfer, and local content requirements and preferences are serious concerns for the proper functioning of international trade, the creation of innovative technologies and the sustainable growth of the global economy.
“We, to address this critical concern, agreed to enhance trilateral cooperation in the WTO and in other forums, as appropriate, to eliminate these and other unfair market distorting and protectionist practices by third countries.”
Japan, the EU and the U.S. have had a series of meeting over the last two years to seek agreement amongst themselves on reforms to the WTO to address the areas covered by the joint statement. There have also been other areas of cooperation including on working towards a more robust set of notification requirements and on how advanced developing countries can better contribute to the WTO by taking on full commitments and by not participating in special and differential treatment under new agreements or new negotiations.
On January 14, 2020, officials from Japan, the EU and the U.S. issued a joint statement that lays out some of the reforms, most in the area of subsidy disciplines, that the three have been able to agree on. While they are still working on proposed text, it is expected that the three major WTO Members will start an outreach process to broaden the support for the proposals. The USTR Press Release which contains the joint statement is attached below.Joint-Statement-of-the-Trilateral-Meeting-of-the-Trade-Ministers-of-Japan-the-United-States-and-the-European-Union-_-United-States-Trade-Representative
One can expect a busy 2020 in Geneva and in capitals around the world as proposals for WTO reform are vetted with various members and the topics get taken up in the WTO. While it is unlikely that any significant movement will occur by the 12th WTO Ministerial scheduled for early June 2020 in Kazakhstan, the topic of WTO reform has seen increased interest and activity throughout 2019.
What are the proposed increased disciplines on subsidies?
Industrial subsidies have been the focus of the trilateral discussions. The Joint Statement recommends expanding the list of prohibited subsidies in Article 3.1 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Duty Measures (“ASCM”) to include the following four categories (and have indicated that they are still exploring whether additional categories should be added):
- “unlimited guarantees”;
- “subsidies to an insolvent or ailing enterprise in the absence of a credible restructuring plan”;
- “subsidies to enterprises unable to obtain long-term financing or investment from independent commercial sources operating in sectors or industries in overcapacity”;
- “certain direct forgiveness of debt”.
These types of subsidies have been major concerns in a number of industries and certainly would pertain to China, but would be applicable to all Members.
Reversal of burden on certain actionable subsidies
The Joint Statement also recommends reversing the burden of proof on certain actionable subsidies that are not prohibited but where the three Members believe the types of subsidies can cause significant harm to competing producers in other countries. The proposal would impose on the subsidizing Member the burden of demonstrating “that there are no serious negative trade or capacity effects and that there is effective transparency about the subsidy in question.” While the list of such subsidies is still being developed, the list currently includes four categories:
- “excessively large subsidies”;
- “subsidies that prop up uncompetitive firms and prevent their exit from the market”;
- “subsidies creating massive manufacturing capacity, without private commercial participation”; and
- “subsidies that lower input prices domestically in comparison to prices of the same goods when destined for export.”
China has been pouring vast subsidies into a range of manufacturing sectors, has created massive excess capacity in dozens of industries, has created “zombie” companies which are prevented from exiting the market, and engages in various practices which have the effect of lowering input prices domestically far below world prices. Similar problems have been experienced with other trading partners as well.
Additional example of serious prejudice
The joint statement also reviews the desire to expand the situations in which serious prejudice under Article 6.3 of the ASCM should be found. The joint statement proposes adding a provision that serious prejudice would exist where the subsidy under investigation distorts capacity. Again, while such a provision would be applicable to all WTO Members, it would obviously be important for economies with the large state role such as China.
Other subsidy proposals
There are three other important proposals contained in the joint statement.
First, the serious problem of inadequate notifications is addressed by proposing that any non-notified subsidies will be treated as prohibited subsidies where other WTO Members provide a counter-notification unless all required information is provided by the subsidizing Member within a certain period of time. The U.S. has provided counter-notifications of subsidies on China and on India in the past. There is still a belief that large numbers of subsidies are not reported by these two countries and others. Lack of complete notifications hampers the ability of trading partners to understand the competitive environment and whether particular Members are acting consistent with their ASCM obligations.
Second, the joint statement addresses one of the challenges flowing from the existing ASCM and dispute settlement decisions, namely the lack of clarity for determining benchmarks for evaluating whether benefits are provided when the home market is distorted. The U.S. and others have gone out of country in certain circumstances, and WTO disputes have limited options for investigating authorities. This has proven to be an important issue in countervailing duty cases looking at subsidies for a number of countries, though China is obviously a major concern. Clarification is very much needed.
Third, the joint statement proposed ensuring that subsidies provided by state owned enterprises can be captured by the term “public body” in ASCM Article 1.1(a)(1). Such clarification is needed in light of a WTO dispute settlement decision which limited the scope of public body. All WTO members with significant state-owned and state-invested enterprises would be affected. Again, China is a major focus of the concern.
Forced Technology Transfer
Forced technology transfer has been a matter of concern for all three of the trilateral Members issuing the joint statement. The joint statement reviews the harm such actions have on other trading partners but does not provide a proposal as yet on what steps need to be taken, including on enforcement. Obviously, as far as China is concerned, these concerns have been a central part of the Section 301 investigation and actions by the U.S. Administration and is reportedly being addressed in one of the chapters in the Phase 1 Agreement that will be signed on January 15. It is not clear if the EU, Japan and the U.S. will be looking to multilateralize whatever provisions the United States has negotiated with China into the WTO.
Other items mentioned in the joint statement
Japan, the EU and the United States have been active on a range of other reform issues and agreed to continue to cooperate on them going forward. There are four items flagged:
- “the importance of market oriented conditions for a free, fair, and mutually advantageous trading system”;
- “reform of the WTO, to include increasing WTO Member compliance with existing WTO notification obligations and pressing advanced WTO Members claiming developing country status to undertake full commitments in ongoing and future WTO negotiations”;
- “international rule-making on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce at the WTO”; and
- international forums such as the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity and the Governments/Authorities’ Meeting on Semiconductors.”
The WTO system was built by market economy countries and does not address many of the distortions that “state capitalism” such as that practiced by China creates. While proposals such as those on subsidies can address (potentially) some of the distortions that state capitalism systems create, pursuing greater coherence to market economy principles is undoubtedly to the benefit of global trade. If very different economic systems are to continue to coexist, major reform to the WTO will be needed to have any hope of reciprocal trade happening, and such trade may well need to be managed in part.
The second group of issues have been being pursued by the U.S. aggressively in Geneva and bilaterally with the support of various countries. Korea, Singapore and Brazil have all agreed not to seek special and differential treatment in future negotiations or agreements.
For the WTO to remain relevant going forward it needs to be able to address major changes in the global trade environment. The importance of e-commerce is one such example. The plurilateral negotiations that are underway by many WTO members need to be both ambitious and reach an early conclusion.
China has walked away from the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity without a resolution to the serious global excess capacity problem largely created by China. Separately, a recent OECD report on subsidies to the semiconductor industry globally shows the importance of addressing the challenges in that sector on a comprehensive basis to avoid massive distortions in outcomes. OECD (2019), “Measuring distortions in international markets: The semiconductor value chain”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 234, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/8fe4491d-en.
The joint statement released today has an importance beyond the specific proposals it contains. It demonstrates that Japan, the EU and the U.S. have a large set of issues on which there is a common vision and willingness to work together for the good of the global system. The proposals on additional subsidy disciplines address real shortfalls in the existing ASCM and reflect the emergence of subsidy practices by state-capital countries like China that need to be addressed. They also identify important corrections to WTO dispute settlement decisions that need to be made to permit the ASCM to function as intended.
Many countries have concerns with forced technology transfer practices of some countries. While hopefully the U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement to be signed on January 15, 2020 will provide a roadmap for a successful approach to these issues, the trilateral efforts will be important to multilateralize an approach that will address all permutations of forced technology transfer that are identified by Members.
Finally, the WTO has gone through its first 25 years and is in need of significant reforms to remain relevant as global trade moves forward. The issues covered by the Joint Statement represent a good group of issue to breathe life back into the WTO.