The WTO’s role in international trade requires timely, accurate and complete information on a wide range of matters covered by existing agreements and the willingness of Members to permit the gathering of information on topics which affect or may affect international competition. While information in some Committees is relatively timely, accurate and complete, many Members have failed to provide information required under existing agreements and have prevented the gathering by the Secretariat of information on topics of potential importance to the functioning of the global trading system and whether certain actions or modes of economic activity operate to create market distortions and distortions in trade patterns. Areas where information has been particularly deficient have been the areas of subsidy notifications both under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Meausres (“ASCM”) and under the Agreement on Agriculture.
A number of countries have proposed improved transparency requirements as part of the identification of needed WTO reforms. See, e.g., PROCEDURES TO ENHANCE TRANSPARENCY AND IMPROVE COMPLIANCE WITH NOTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS UNDER WTO AGREEMENTS COMMUNICATION FROM ARGENTINA; AUSTRALIA; CANADA; CHILE; COSTA RICA; THE EUROPEAN UNION; ISRAEL; JAPAN; REPUBLIC OF KOREA; MEXICO; NEW ZEALAND;
NORWAY; THE PHILIPPINES; SINGAPORE; SWITZERLAND; THE SEPARATE CUSTOMS TERRITORY OF TAIWAN, PENGHU, KINMEN AND MATSU; UNITED KINGDOM; AND THE UNITED STATES, 14 September 2021, JOB/GC/204/Rev.7, JOB/CTG/14/Rev.7.
Some countries have attempted to address the perceived inadequacies of subsidy notifications through counternotifications. See USTR, United States Details China and India Subsidy Programs in Submission to WTO, October 2011, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2011/october/united-states-details-china-and-india-subsidy-prog (“U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced today that the United States has submitted information to the World Trade Organization (WTO) identifying nearly 200 subsidy programs that China has failed to notify as required under WTO rules. Information was also submitted on 50 subsidy programs in India not previously notified. Through these actions at the WTO, the United States is seeking the prompt provision of detailed information and data from China and India regarding the operation of these subsidy programs. ‘The situation was simply intolerable,’ said Ambassador Kirk. ‘Every member of the WTO is required to come clean on its subsidy programs on a regular basis. China has not notified its subsidy programs in over five years. India only recently filed its first notification in almost ten years, and even then notified only three of the many subsidy programs we know to exist. Because China and India have failed to meet their respective obligations, we had to act – as we are entitled to under the WTO rules – and provide the voluminous information we have developed regarding subsidy programs in these two countries.’)(emphasis added); WTO news release, Concerns grow about slippage in subsidy notifications, 25 April 2017, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news17_e/scm_25apr17_e.htm (“The United States and the European Union questioned China about what they alleged were some 160 government subsidies or grants listed in the annual reports of six of the largest Chinese steel producers (G/SCM/Q2/CHN/70) which were not included in China’s WTO subsidy notifications. The United States also quizzed China about the non-notification of other alleged subsides in sectors such as steel, aluminium and fisheries, as well as the non-notification of subsidies under China’s ‘Internationally Well-Known Brand’ programme. On fisheries, the United States said China had failed to notify 44 subsidy measures, including tax exemptions for certain operations such as deep water fishing ‘ identifying over 470 Chinese subsidy measures that were not notified to the WTO.”); WTO News, Members express concerns on lack of transparency at WTO subsidies committee meeting, 27 April 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/scm_27apr21_e.htm.
Organizations like the OECD have historically developed trade policy reports that look at subsidies and distortions in agriculture, fossil fuels and fisheries. In recent years, the OECD has done some sector specific reports based on public data on distortions in international markets from subsidies in the aluminum and semiconductor value chains. See OECD (2019-01-07), “Measuring distortions in international markets: the aluminium value chain”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 218, OECD Publishing, Paris.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/c82911ab-en; OECD (2019-12-12), “Measuring distortions in international markets: The semiconductor value chain”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 234, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/8fe4491d-en. The OECD press releases on the two trade policy reports contain information on the reports and historical activity of the OECD.
“Measuring distortions in international markets: the aluminium value chain
“This report builds on the OECD’s longstanding work measuring government support in agriculture, fossil fuels, and fisheries in order to estimate support and related market distortions in the aluminium value chain. Results show that non-market forces, and government support in particular, appear to explain some of the recent increases in aluminium-smelting capacity. While government support is commonly found throughout the aluminium value chain, it is especially heavy in the People’s Republic of China and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Looking across the whole value chain also shows subsidies upstream to confer significant support to downstream activities, such as the production of semi-fabricated products of aluminium. Overall, market distortions appear to be a genuine concern in the aluminium industry, and one that has implications for global competition and the design of trade rules disciplining government support.” ttps://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/trade/measuring-distortions-in-international-markets-the-aluminium-value-chain_c82911ab-en.
“Measuring distortions in international markets: The semiconductor value chain
“This report builds on the OECD’s longstanding work measuring government support in agriculture, fossil fuels, fisheries, and more recently in the aluminium value chain in order to estimate producer support and related market distortions in the semiconductor value chain. Results for 21 large firms operating across the semiconductor value chain indicate that total government support has exceeded USD 50 billion over the period 2014-18. Government support provided in the form of below-market debt and equity appears to be particularly large in the context of the semiconductor industry and concentrated in one jurisdiction. Other types of support identified include support for R&D and investment incentives, which benefitted all firms studied in this report. The report also discusses the implications that these findings have for trade rules, and in particular for subsidy disciplines in a context of growing government involvement in semiconductor production and poor transparency of support measures.” https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/trade/measuring-distortions-in-international-markets_8fe4491d-en.
The 28th Global Trade Alert Report, Subsidies and Market Access
Earlier this week, Simon Evenett and Johannes Fritz released the 28th Global Trade Alert Report entitled “Subsidies and Market Access, Towards an Inventory of Corporate Subsidies by China, the European Union, and the United States.” https://www.globaltradealert.org/reports/gta-28-report. It is an important contribution to the development of a data base of possible government subsidies by the three largest trading nations or blocs. The report has used information from government sources but not the subsidy notifications filed with the WTO. The report claims to have inventoried “18,387 corporate subsidies awarded by China, the EU, and the USA since November 2008.” (page 5)
“Our study should not be read as implying that China, the European Union, and the United States are the only jurisdictions that award subsidies to organisations engaged in business; the Global Trade Alert database currently contains a total of 5,977 subsidy policy changes and awards implemented by other nations.” (Page 5) Many countries provide domestic subsidies on industrial goods and such subsidies are not presently limited by the WTO ASCM although where such subsidies cause distortions or injury to a trading partner, there are potential remedies. Many countries also provide subsidies on agriculture whether reported to the WTO or not, and there is no tracking of what, if any, subsidies are provided by WTO Members to the service industries.
At present, there are no WTO disciplines on service industries receiving subsidies whether domestic or export. Yet, the report released on Monday indicates that “a total of 4,564” of the subsidy actions catalogued “involved the transfer of state resources to service sector firms” with 12.66% to financial service sector firms (578). The service subsidy findings in the report suggest that service subsidies (in number) are more than twice the number of agricultural subsidy items catalogued (2,171) and 42% of the number found for manufacturing companies (10,814). Page 6. Agricultural subsidies are the most actively controlled in the WTO (by the WTO Agreement on Agriculture). There are limited restrictions on manufacturing subsidies under the ASCM and some disciplines on subsidies to the civilian aircraft sector for signatories to the separate plurilateral agreement. And none on subsidies to services providers. I have written in the past on the irrationality of the different subsidy disciplines under the WTO on agriculture, manufactured goods and services. See, e.g., November 23, 2020: WTO subsidy disciplines – an update and coordination across areas is long overdue, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/23/wto-subsidy-disciplines-an-update-and-coordination-across-areas-is-long-overdue/. The report released yesterday provides a potential measure of why a comprehensive review of subsidy disciplines is needed by the WTO Members for all trade (goods and services).
- breadth of data
There have been many studies of subsidies in particular sectors or by particular governments over the years. Depending on the level of transparency in a country, publications on subsidy sources by a particular government are not unheard of. For example, in Canada there used to be annual reports on government subsidy programs put out by Statistics Canada. See Fraser Institute, Governments go subsidy-wild with $684 billion spent on subsidies since 1981, https://www.fraserinstitute.org/article/governments-go-subsidy-wild-684-billion-spent-subsidies-1981 (“Ever wonder how Canada’s net federal debt reached $671 billion by 2013? Or how net provincial debt among the provinces ended up at $509 billion that same year? Wonder no more. It’s partially due to massive subsidies to corporations, government businesses and even consumers that over three decades amounted to $684 billion. Statistics Canada once collected useful information about such taxpayer-funded government subsidies. The subsidies include funding for corporations (think selected automotive and aerospace companies), or Crown corporations like VIA Rail, or a government-owned ferry system to subsidize consumers’ ferry rides. Statistics Canada stopped tallying up the numbers in 2009 but by looking at what is available from 1981 (and adjusting for inflation to 2013 dollars to get apple-to-apple comparisons), some useful statistics pop out.”).
The usefulness of the 28th Global Trade Alert report is its focus on the three largest trading nations or blocks and a compilation of data points for a lengthy period of time (since 2008). The data base is also available for evaluation. There is partial data for other countries in the data base as well.
Missing is an evaluation of how many of the inventoried items are covered by notified subsidy programs by Members to the WTO. While there are concerns about completeness of notifications and timeliness of notifications, it would have been helpful to flag how many of the items would be covered by the notifications.
Similarly, while the report lays out what it treats as a subsidy, there are likely areas where clarification would be helpful. For example, on export financing, the U.S. has long been a participant in the OECD undertaking on export credits. Yet, of the 5,962 “subsidies” identified by the report, more than 1500 were from U.S. Eximbank. These are not likely prohibited export subsidies. So presumably, any loan from U.S. Exim was treated as a domestic subsidy. Whether that would be factually accurate is an open question. Similarly, more than 1,000 of the subsidy items are actions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since the U.S. has reported every year operating within the limits of its obligations under the WTO, the relevance of the notices would presumably be simply in cataloging subsidies provided. It is not clear how the information would be an improvement on what is reported by the U.S. to the WTO Committee on Agriculture.
2. Rise in trade remedy cases –a reaction to global excess capacity and a source of information on distortions to trade
Countervailing duty investigations by national authorities on imports from a particular country can reveal information on the type and level of subsidies. Much of the information developed in an investigation may not be otherwise publicly available. And GATT Contracting Parties and, now, WTO Members have been able to challenge perceived subsidy practices at the WTO under various agreements.
The 28th Global Trade Alert report notes the increase in CVD investigations and in WTO disputes on subsidies and CVD cases. While the observation is correct that there are more cases in the last decade or so, it is unclear that the authors explored the information from the CVD investigations to determine the extent of subsidy practices in particular industries which may vary considerably from the sources they used. Having been a trade practitioner for 40 years, it is clear particularly for countries like China that there are many programs that are not flagged in corporate documents as having been used and many other state interventions which distorted competition that are not available from public sources in China. Indeed, in at least one CVD case in the U.S., documentation was submitted by a petitioner indicating that the Chinese government was ordering companies not to cooperate — hence minimizing the understanding of subsidy practices in particular sectors in China. Moreover, many of the cases brought involve sectors where China’s (and other countries’) policies resulted in massive global excess capacity.
China has been the subject of 176 of 431 CVD investigations brought by WTO Members since 2008. 285 OF 632 CVD investigations since 1995 involved base metals products of base metals (e.g., steel and aluminum), with higher numbers in recent years. Chemicals, plastics, rubber products were the subject of 127 additional cases since 1995, with more cases in recent years. All of these sectors reflect problems of global excess capacity.
Historically, GATT Contracting Parties were all market economies. Thus, there has never been any question that market economy countries or territories often use domestic or export subsidies. This was true under the GATT and now under the WTO. What is different in 2021 and since 2001 is that with non-market economies like China now in the WTO and with their combination of massive government intervention in the domestic market, industry plans, government funding, tolerance of IP theft, limitations on operations of foreign companies, export restrictions on raw materials and other identified distortions of competition, distortions in global markets have gotten much worse.
Many sectors have found themselves characterized by massive global excess production capacity, often largely driven by China, including in sectors where China has no inherent competitive advantages such as aluminum or steel. Indeed, China has identified sectors where it acknowledges massive excess Chinese capacity since at least 2007. With limited transparency, China will note closed capacity in these sectors but will seldom acknowledge additions to capacity being made at the same time. I testified before the U.S.-China Commission in February 2016 on the problems flowing from the massive global excess capacity created by China’s economic system and multitude of distortions to market forces. See HEARING ON CHINA’S SHIFTING ECONOMIC REALITIES AND IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED STATES, HEARING BEFORE THE
U.S.-CHINA ECONOMIC AND SECURITY REVIEW COMMISSION, ONE HUNDRED FOURTEENTH CONGRESS, SECOND SESSION, WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2016 at 92-100 (statement of Terence P. Stewart), https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/transcripts/February%2024,%202016_Hearing%20Transcript.pdf; see also Rui Fan, ‘‘China’s Excess Capacity: Drivers and Implications,’’ Stewart and Stewart, June 2015 (cited in USCC 2016 annual report at 104, 116, 134). Excerpts from my prepared statement to the USCC are copied below.
“Generally, an economy that follows state planning has the ability to pour resources into industries on a scale that doesn’t reflect underlying demand patterns or that overshoots actual demand trends. In the past several decades, a massive amount of industrial capacity has been added in China in a large number of manufacturing sectors to enhance the competitive position of the country and to provide employment to large numbers of people, many in state-owned enterprises. These actions have created massive disequilibrium in China and globally in various important manufacturing sectors. This imbalance was exacerbated by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and recession and has again surfaced as a destabilizing force amidst slowing global demand. In fact, the US and many other countries are suffering the consequences of China’s actions as seen in the closure of aluminum smelters and steel mills and the layoff of thousands of workers.
“Indeed, the scope of the excess capacity in certain major industries is extraordinary by any measure and flows from state planning, funding and subsidization on a massive scale. The central government of China has recognized that the problem is a serious one and has been trying to deal with it, often with little actual effect as planned capacity closures are undermined by local
governments focused on creating or maintaining employment and by central government efforts to add capacity in the western part of the country. So mandated closures have in many sectors been more than offset by other capacity additions in the country.1
“However, with the recent and increasingly slowing internal growth in China, the increasing capacity overhang in China is
creating very real problems for Chinese companies and their international competitors. These capacity increases in a time of declining global demand are destabilizing global markets as exports have increased in some cases by 100% in short periods. The result is depressed global prices for products and waves of dislocations around the world as producers in other markets shift product to export2 as they lose market share at home. Ultimately, China must play a leadership role in the global economy to help find a way to rebalance supply and demand in each of these sectors. While it is doing so, the sectors will be depressed around the world with companies, workers and their local communities paying the price for the massive excess capacity created and maintained by the Chinese economic system.
“Because there are no multilaterally agreed rules to address situations of massive global excess capacity in a rapid or comprehensive manner, Chinese action now to get rid of excess capacity is critical to preventing the serious global dislocations caused by overcapacity in many critical industrial sectors. Otherwise market economy producers will respond to the market signals
flowing from the excess capacity that prices are unsustainable by closing plants, writing off assets and laying off workers even if the plants being closed are in fact internationally competitive.3
“For example, in the aluminum sector, western aluminum producers have been closing aluminum smelters in many parts of the world because of the depressed prices caused in large part by China’s massive excess capacity and inventories of product overhanging the market. In the US, six aluminum smelters have closed or been announced as closing in the last six months, leaving the US with a capacity back at 1950s levels. Yet China has no natural competitive advantage in the production of aluminum and environmentally its production is not desirable being largely coalpowered for energy. Nonetheless, China has expanded its aluminum capacity from 1.75 million tons in 1996 to an estimated 36 million tons in 2015.4 And in 2014 alone, Chinese excess capacity was estimated at more than 10 million tons.5 China now accounts for more than half of the world’s aluminum smelting capacity (52.3% vs. 7.9% in 1996).6
“Meanwhile, US capacity has declined by 52 percent from 4.2 million tons in 1996 to 2 million tons in 2015 and will be much
smaller in 2016 following the announced closures or planned closures of six smelters since September 2015 (one million tons).7
Thousands of aluminum workers in the US have lost or are losing their jobs. America now has less than 3 percent of the world’s primary aluminum production capacity and will have less than 2 percent in 2016.8
“The global steel sector is also in crisis.9 China’s steel capacity has skyrocketed from 145 million tons in 2000 to more than 1 billion tons today (some estimates are as high as 1.4 billion tons) with excess capacity of as much as 40% – equal to the total capacity in the US, EU and Japan.10
“The problem of excess capacity in the steel sector has been studied for a number of years within the OECD,11 has been the subject of bilateral discussion between the US and China12 as well as the EU and China. Over the past few years, the Chinese have announced a series of production cuts with little or no actual net reductions in steel capacity to date. The government of China has announced in recent weeks a program to close 100-150 million tons of capacity in the steel sector over the next five years13 – a huge sum of capacity if actually achieved but as little as one fourth of what is needed in fact.
“Companies harmed by globally depressed prices and rising import levels can seek relief through trade remedies.14 However, for products like aluminum or steel, problems often reflect loss of export markets (China or third country) as well as loss of one’s home market. Trade remedies are generally available for import problems. WTO cases can be brought for loss of third country
markets or loss of the market by the subsidizing country but require the willingness of the home government to bring such a case. However, existing WTO rules do not provide members with quick and effective means to address excess capacity.
“1. See, e.g., Biman Mukherji, Rising Chinese Production Keeps Lid on Aluminum Prices, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2015 (noting that, since 2010, Chinese producers have closed 3 million tons of annual aluminum production capacity but have added an additional 17 million tons of capacity), http://www.wsj.com/articles/rising-chinese-production-keeps-lid-on-aluminum-prices1447186082 (requires subscription). See also Aluminum producers staggering as factories lack orders, http://china.org.cn/business/2013-08/27/content_29835483.htm; China’s aluminum glut set to continue, http://asia.nikkei.com/Markets/Commodities/China-s-aluminum-glut-set-to-continue.
“2 Will China Finally Tackle Overcapacity?, http://blogs.piie.com/china/?p=3857; OECD China Economic Survey (March 2015),
” 3 The US Trade Representative’s Office, in its December 2015 Report on China, summarized the problem of excess capacity:
“Chinese government actions and financial support in manufacturing industries like steel and aluminum have contributed to massive excess capacity in China, with the resulting over-production distorting global markets and hurting U.S. producers and workers in both the United States and third country markets such as Canada and Mexico. While China recognizes the severe excess capacity problem in the steel and aluminum industries, among others, and has taken steps to try to address this problem, there have been mixed results.
“From 2000 to 2014, China accounted for more than 75 percent of global steelmaking capacity growth. Currently, China’s capacity alone exceeds the combined steelmaking capacity of the European Union (EU), Japan, the United States, and Russia. China has no comparative advantage with regard to the energy and raw material inputs that make up the majority of costs for steelmaking, yet China’s capacity has continued to grow exponentially and is estimated to have exceeded 1.4 billion metric tons (MT) in 2014, despite weakening demand domestically and abroad. While China’s steel production is slowing and China may
produce approximately 2 to 3 percent less steel in 2015 than in 2014, steel demand in China is projected to decrease 5 percent this year. As a result, China’s steel exports grew to be the largest in the world, at 93 million MT in 2014, a 50-percent increase over 2013 levels, despite sluggish steel demand abroad. In 2015, there is rising concern that China’s steel exports are still growing and may have increased 25 percent in the first ten months of 2015, as compared to the same period in 2014.
“Similarly, monthly production of aluminum in China doubled between January 2011 and July 2015 and continues to grow. Large new facilities are being built with government support, including through energy subsidies. China’s aluminum excess capacity is contributing to a severe decline in global aluminum prices, harming U.S. plants and workers.
“Excess capacity in China – whether in the steel industry or other industries like aluminum – hurts U.S. industries and workers not only because of direct exports from China to the United States, but because lower global prices and a glut of supply make it difficult for even the most competitive producers to remain viable. Domestic industries in many of China’s trading partners have continued to respond to the effects of the trade distortive effects of China’s excess capacity by petitioning their governments to impose trade remedies such as antidumping and countervailing duties.
“2015 USTR Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance (December 2015) at 12-13, https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2015-
“4 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998 and 2016, http://minerals.er.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/050398.pdf;
http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/mcs-2016-alumi.pdf. See also Attachment 2 (chart and table
showing China’s aluminum capacity).
“5 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2016, http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/mcs-2016-alumi.pdf.
“6 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998 and 2016, http://minerals.er.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/050398.pdf;
“8 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2016, http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/mcs-2016-alumi.pdf.
“9 See generally, Surging Steel Imports Put Up To Half A Million U.S. Jobs At Risk, Terence P. Stewart, Elizabeth J. Drake,
Stephanie M. Bell, and Jessica Wang (Stewart and Stewart), and Robert E. Scott (The Economic Policy Institute),
“10 See Attachment 2 (chart and table showing China’s steel capacity). See also .Developments in Steelmaking Capacity of NonOECD Economies, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/industry-and-services/developments-in-steelmaking-capacity-of-non-oecdcountries_19991606; China’s excess crude steel still a problem, http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Economy/China-sexcess-crude-steel-still-a-problem.
“11 See, e.g., OECD, Steelmaking Capacity, http://www.oecd.org/sti/ind/steelcapacity.htm.
“12 The United States and China engaged in discussions regarding excess capacity in the steel sector at the SE&D meeting in July
2014 and regarding the steel and aluminum sectors at the JCCT meeting in November 2015. See USTR December 2015 Report
on China, at 104-105, https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2015-Report-to-Congress-China-WTO-Compliance.pdf.
“13 China to cut steel capacity by 100-150 mln tonnes in 5 years, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-
“14 Pain Spreads From China’s Excess Production, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/07/16/pain-spreads-from-chinasexcess-production/ (noting that “China’s vast excess capacity makes it the biggest target of [trade] sanctions”).”
For the WTO to regain full relevance, its rule book needs to be updated to reflect both the current developments in world trade but also to ensure that all trade distortions are addressable in a meaningful and timely way by Members. A review of subsidy disciplines is certainly an important topic (including finalizing the GATS to address how subsidies will be handled for services). But there are many other distortions that are not currently fully or even partially addressable within the WTO in a meaningful way. State owned and invested enterprises are a growing factor in a number of countries and can seriously distort trade flows and competition. Government policies that restrict exports of inputs have had dramatic skewing effects on where downstream producers invest. State supported or sanctioned industrial espionage skews competition and drastically reduces the cost of production in countries that permit the theft. Economies that don’t function on market principles fundamentally distort market outcomes and invite use of non-WTO tools to address resulting distorted outcomes. And the WTO has no rules for addressing quickly any sector with massive global excess capacity.
Efforts to get greater transparency, completeness and timeliness in notifications are obviously a necessary and important element of WTO reform. Reports like that put out as the 28th Global Trade Alert report can be an important source of additional information to help WTO Members understand the extent of practices that may be of concern to themselves or others. However, in 2021, the array of market distortions pursued by governments like China (and others) are far broader than simply government subsidies. A road forward must include an analysis and update or creation of rules for all such distortions.