When China acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2001, it had had a long working party process as WTO Members focused on the wide array of changes to laws, regulations and practices that China would need to undertake to have an economic system and policies that were consistent with WTO norms. China made many changes to its policies ahead of accession. However, the extent of modifications needed to the Chinese system that were still not accomplished by 2001 meant that the Protocol of Accession and the Working Party Report that China and WTO Members agreed to were unprecedented in terms of the number of additional changes that needed to be made for China’s system to be compatible with WTO norms. Indeed, periodic reviews over a decade were included of China’s actions to permit other WTO Members to understand the extent of compliance with the wide ranging modifications still needed. As China was moving from a state-controlled economy towards a market economy, WTO Members insisted on special rules to address some of the likely distortions a large economy like China with significant state controls was anticipated to create. A country-specific safeguard and special recognition of nonmarket economy provisions in trade remedies were included in the Protocol of Accession. While China accepted all three provisions to obtain membership in the WTO, China always expressed its views that these additional provisions were discriminatory and an effort to hold China back in terms of economic growth.
While China continued to make progress in its reform program for a number of years after acceding to the WTO, beginning with the financial crisis of 2008-2009 China reversed direction and increased the importance of state-owned and state-invested enterprises, state planning and state control of a wide array of factors of production. A former Director-General of the WTO and former EC Trade Commissioner reviewed the challenges for market economy countries in dealing with a country with a large share of its economy controlled by the state. See July 27, 2020, Pascal Lamy’s recent comments on the challenges facing the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/07/27/pascal-lamys-recent-comments-on-the-challenges-facing-the-wto/.
Many major trading partners have worked with China since its WTO accession to address perceived distortions flowing from its economic system and to help China handle the obligations it had undertaken upon joining the WTO. Many commitments for change were made by China with limited actual forward movement achieved in the views of at least some trading partners. Members like the United States undertake their own annual review of China’s compliance with WTO obligations in an effort to chronicle China’s changing economic system and whether there are distortions of concern to China’s trading partners. See, e.g., U.S. Trade Representative, 2019 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance (March 2020)(embedded below). As stated on page 4:
“Over the past nearly two decades, a variety of bilateral and multilateral efforts were pursued by the United States and other WTO members to address the unique challenges presented by China’s WTO membership. However, even though these efforts were persistent, they did not result in meaningful changes in China’s approach to the economy and trade.
“In our past reports, we identified and explained the numerous policies and practices pursued by China that harm and disadvantage U.S. companies and workers, often severely. We also catalogued the United States’ persistent yet unsuccessful efforts to resolve the many concerns that have arisen in our trade relationship with China. We found that a consistent pattern existed where the United States raised a particular concern, China specifically promised to address that concern, and China’s promise was not fulfilled.
“The costs associated with China’s unfair and distortive policies and practices have been substantial. For example, China’s non-market economic system and the industrial policies that flow from it have systematically distorted critical sectors of the global economy such as steel and aluminum, devastating markets in the United States and other industrialized countries. China also continues to block valuable sectors of its economy from foreign competition, particularly services sectors. At the same time, China’s industrial policies are increasingly responsible for displacing companies in new, emerging sectors of the global economy, as the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party powerfully intervene on behalf of China’s domestic industries. Companies in economies disciplined by the market cannot effectively compete with both Chinese companies and the Chinese state.”
The 11th Ministerial Conference and a Joint Statement by EU, Japan and the United States
The challenges of China’s economic system have been felt in many global industries in a number of ways. There has been massive excess capacity created by China’s policies (and those of some other countries). Efforts to address excess capacity in steel proved unsuccessful. But literally dozens of industries faced excess capacity in China which has resulted in flooded global markets and harm to competing producers in other countries.
At the same time there have been major concerns about forced technology transfers for companies wanting to operate in China, a myriad and changing set of barriers (formal and informal) discriminating against imports and foreign owned enterprises in certain sectors.
By the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference, the United States, European Union and Japan had decided more formal action was needed to address the ongoing distortions being created by China and other countries emulating the Chinese model of economic system. At the end of the Conference, the three WTO Members issued a joint statement which stated in large part,
“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.”
There have been a series of meetings of the three trade ministers since then providing an update on their joint efforts. A joint statement in January 2020 outlined the types of industrial subsidies where the three major WTO Members believed greater disciplines were needed and outlined other areas where joint efforts were underway. The 2018, 2019 and 2020 joint statements can be found here, with the 2020 statement embedded after the links. See Joint Statement on Trilateral Meeting of the Trade Ministers of the United States, Japan, and the European Union, 09/25/2018, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2018/august/statement-meetings-between-united; Joint Statement of the Trilateral Meeting of the Trade Ministers of the United States, European Union, and Japan, 05/23/2019, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2019/may/joint-statement-trilateral-meeting; Joint Statement of the Trilateral Meeting of the Trade Ministers of Japan, the United States, and the European Union, 01/14/2020, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/january/joint-statement-trilateral-meeting-trade-ministers-japan-united-states-and-european-union.
U.S. Section 301 Investigation of Certain Chinese Policies, U.S. imposition of tariffs and Chinese retaliation
In August 2017, the U.S. Trade Representative initiated an investigation on certain of China’s Acts, Policies and Practices Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation. 82 Fed. Reg. 40,213-40,215 (Aug. 24, 2017). The investigation resulted in a determination by USTR on March 22, 2018 that various Chinese acts, policies and practices violated Section 301 of the Trade Act of 194, as amended. The President authorized the imposition of additional duties to encourage China to address the problems raised. China retaliated and through a series of further escalations, the U.S. has imposed additional duties on some $350 billion of imports from China and China has imposed additional duties on the vast majority of U.S. exports to China. The 301 report and supplement are embedded below.
The United States viewed the Section 301 investigation as necessary to address practices of China not addressed by WTO rules or not adequately addressed. China viewed the investigation as not permitted under WTO rules. The trade conflict and efforts to find a solution, resulted in a Phase 1 Agreement between the United States and China with most additional duties remaining in place, some substantive changes made on some issues of concern to the United States and a Phase 2 negotiation to resolve outstanding issues which has not begun as of mid-August 2020.
China’s effort to be treated as a market economy under trade remedies
China has long felt that nonmarket economy methodology employed by trading partners discriminated against China and was unjustified. On December 12 2016, the day after certain language in China’s Protocol of Accession became ineffective, China filed requests for consultations with each of the European Union (WT/DS/516) and the United States (WT/DS/515). China has not actively pursued the action against the United States. On the action against the European Union, after the matter was fully briefed at the panel stage and it was understood that an interim panel report was released to the parties, China requested on 7 May 2019 the panel to suspend its proceedings in accordance with Article 12.12 of the DSU. The panel proceeding was suspended on 14 June 2019. On 15 June 2020, the Secretariat released a note indicating that the panel’s authority in the dispute had lapsed since China had not requested the resumption of work within one year.
Thus, China remains subject to nonmarket economy methodologies by certain of its trading partners.
Proposed General Council decision submitted by the United States
The United States has raised an issue for WTO Member consideration in the form of a proposed General Council decision. The issue goes to whether the WTO is predicated on market-oriented economic principles and rests on the concern that some large WTO Members (including China) have economic systems that are characterized as non-market and that create various distortions in the global marketplace including creating massive excess capacity and other issues. While the issue has been raised by the United States for the last several years within the WTO, the U.S. permanent representative to the WTO made a strong case at the General Council meeting (Dec. 9, 2019), raised the matter again along with the draft General Council decision at the March 3, 2020 General Council meeting and raised it again at the July 22-23, 2020 General Council meeting. The proposal was opposed by China at each General Council meeting. Many Members provided comments either supporting, opposing, raising questions with the proposal or indicating the matter was being considered in capital (minutes for the July General Council meeting are not yet available). Members besides the U.S. and China who spoke include the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chinese Taipei, Uruguay, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Russian Federation, and Sri Lanka. See, e.g., Minutes of General Council Meeting, 9-10 December, 2019, WT/GC/M/181 at 59-64 (24 February 2020); The Importance of Market-Oriented Conditions to the World Trading System, Draft General Council Decision, Communication from the United States, WT/GC/W/796 (20 February 2020)(embedded below); Minutes of General Council Meeting, 3 March 2020, WT/GC/M/182 at 35-44 (16 April 2020); General Council Meeting of 22-23 July 2020, Proposed Agenda, WT/GC/W/802 (item 11)(20 July 2020).
The crisis at the WTO has many elements but a central concern of many is whether the current WTO can be effective in ensure competitive markets when one or more major Members have an economic system largely at odds with that of most Members. The tensions created by the distortions caused by different systems has led both to increasing use of trade remedies, efforts to identify changes or additions to rules needed if convergence is not required of Members, and actions outside of the WTO where long term discussions have not resulted in the level of changes needed by countries working from market-oriented economies.
While the U.S. has reviewed provisions of the WTO that indicate the system is premised on market economy principles, a number of Members disagree that the WTO can address different economic systems. One of the Deputy-Directors General has identified core principles of the WTO and opined that the system supports convergence not coexistence. See Remarks before the Korean International Trade Association. 27 May 2020, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_27may20_e.htm back to text
It is against this complex background that candidates for the Director-General post of the WTO will be evaluated by many Members. In the next post, I turn to how the eight candidates have addressed these complex issues in terms of their prepared statements to the General Council, press conference after the General Council meeting and in the WITA webinars.