China in the WTO – The U.S. View of China’s Compliance With Its Obligations

China became a member of the WTO on December 11, 2001. Because of the enormous differences in economic systems and the distance of needed reforms in China to make it a market economy, the Protocol of Accession and Working Party Report are exceptional in terms of topics covered, areas where China had significant work before being WTO compliant and the inclusion of special provisions to protect the interests of other WTO Members while China continued on its path of reform.

Because of China’s size and importance globally, the U.S. Congress passed legislation which includes a requirement for the U.S. Trade Representative to provide an annual report on the U.S. view of China’s Compliance with its WTO obligations. On March 6, 2020, USTR released its 18th report on China’s WTO compliance, a one hundred and ninety-two page document. The report consists of a executive summary, a section reviewing the U.S. assessment of China’s WTO membership, a section reviewing prior U.S. efforts to address trade distortions caused by China’s policies, a section on the new U.S. strategy to address China’s trade distortions, a section reviewing the mechanisms used to engage China, a section reviewing U.S. ongoing concerns and a lengthy appendix that provides greater detail on many issues. See 2019 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance,

The report provides a very good overview of the wide range of issues on which the United States has ongoing concerns about China’s actions and compliance with WTO obligations. While some of the concerns are supposed to be addressed in the Phase 1 Agreement the United States and China have entered into, many of the concerns are not yet addressed by China. Some of these remaining issues will be subject to upcoming negotiations on a Phase 2 Agreement. Others may be addressed through bilateral consultations, through specific dispute settlement cases , or through possible modifications to WTO rules or by other actions by the United States.

Executive Summary

The U.S. Administration views China as having a poor record on compliance with many parts of its WTO obligations. The Administration views such non-compliance and the continued nonmarket economic system in China as posing major distortions for China’s trading partners. The Executive Summary of this year’s report (pages 4-5) provides an overview of the concerns and actions being taken by the United States:

“In our 2017 and 2018 reports, we provided the Administration’s assessment of China’s WTO membership, the unique and very serious challenges that China’s trade policies and practices pose for the multilateral trading system and the effectiveness of the strategies that had been pursued to address the China problem in prior years. We also identified the critical need for new and more effective strategies – including taking actions outside the WTO where necessary – to address the challenges presented by China’s non-market economic system. In this year’s report, we focus on the positive outcomes to date of the Administration’s new and more effective strategy for engaging China, which has led to the signing of an historic trade agreement with China. We also highlight the important issues that remain to be addressed in our trade relationship with China.

“As we previously documented, China’s record of compliance with WTO rules has been poor. China has continued to embrace a state-led, mercantilist approach to the economy and trade, despite WTO members’ expectations – and China’s own representations – that China would transform its economy and pursue the open, market-oriented policies endorsed by the WTO. At the same time, China’s non-market approach has imposed, and continues to impose, substantial costs on WTO members.

“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.

“Faced with these realities, this Administration announced two years ago that it would be pursuing a new, more aggressive approach to the United States’ engagement of China. We explained that the Administration would defend U.S. companies and workers from China’s unfair trading practices and would seek to restore balance to the trade relationship between the United States and China. As part of these efforts, the United States would take all appropriate actions to ensure that the costs of China’s non-market economic system are borne by China, not by the United States. The United States also would continue to encourage China to make fundamental structural changes to its approach to the economy and trade consistent with the open, market-oriented approach pursued by other WTO members, which is rooted in the principles of non-discrimination, market access, reciprocity, fairness, and transparency. As we explained, if undertaken by China, these changes would do more than simply ease the growing trade tensions with its trading partners. These changes would also benefit China, by placing its economy on a more sustainable path, and would contribute to the growth of the U.S. economy and the global economy.

“The Administration based this new approach on the following assessments: (1) WTO membership comes with expectations that an acceding member not only will strictly adhere to WTO rules, but also will support and pursue open, market-oriented policies; (2) China has failed to comply with these expectations; (3) in recent years, China has moved further away from open, market-oriented policies and has more fully embraced a state-led, mercantilist approach to the economy and trade; and (4) China’s market-distorting policies and practices harm and disadvantage its fellow WTO members, even as China reaps enormous benefits from its WTO membership.

“Consistent with this more aggressive approach to China, the Administration is now using all available tools – including domestic trade remedies, bilateral negotiations, WTO litigation, and strategic engagement with like-minded trading partners – to respond to the unique and very serious challenges presented by China. But, the goal for the United States remains the same. The United States seeks a trade relationship with China that is fair, reciprocal, and balanced.

“Over the past year, the United States’ new approach to China began to demonstrate key progress with the signing of a “Phase One” economic and trade agreement in January 2020. This historic agreement requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange. The agreement also includes a commitment by China that it will make substantial additional purchases of U.S. goods and services in the coming years. Importantly, the agreement establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.

“Because the Phase One agreement does not cover all of the United States’ concerns, the United States will turn to Phase Two of its trade negotiations with China in order to secure resolutions to important outstanding issues. These discussions will focus on intellectual property, technology transfer, and services market access issues that were not addressed in the Phase One agreement as well as critical issues in areas such as excess capacity, subsidies, state-owned enterprises, cybersecurity, data localization and cross-border data transfers, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, competition law enforcement, regulatory transparency, and standards.”

Key U.S. Concerns

The bulk of the report lays out key U.S. concerns on a wide range of topics where China’s laws, regulations, policies and actions either deviate from WTO requirements or create significant market distortions. A list of the topics covered follows (pages 30-54 of the report) broken into six main topics and subtopics:

Industrial Policies including (1) Made In China 2025 Industrial Plan; (2) Subsidies; (3) Excess Capaciy; (4) Technology Transfer; (5) Indigenous Innovation; (6) Investment Restrictions; (7) Export Restraints; (8) Value-added Tax Rebates and Related Policies: (9) Import Ban on Remanufactured Products; (10) Import Ban on Recyclable Materials; (11) Standards; (12)
Secure and Controllable Policies; (13) Encryption; (14) Government Procurement; (15) Trade Remedies.

Intellectual Property Rights including (1) Trade Secrets; (2) Bad Faith Trademark Registration; (3) Pharmaceuticals; (4) Online Infringement; (5) Counterfeit Goods.

Agriculture including (1) Agricultural Domestic Support; (2) Tariff-rate Quota Administration; (3) Agricultural Biotechnology Approvals; (4) Food Safety Law; (5) Poultry; (6) Beef; (7) Pork; (8) Horticultural Products; (9)
Value-added Tax Rebates and Related Policies.

Services including (1) Banking Services; (2) Securities, Asset Management, and Future Services; (3) Insurance Services; (4) Electronic Payment Services; (5) Internet-enabled Payment Services; (6) Telecommunications Services; (7) Internet Regulatory Regime; (8) Voice-over-Internet Protocol Services; (9) Cloud Computing Services; (10) Theatrical Films; (11) Audio-visual and Related Services; (12) Online Video and Entertainment Software Services; (13) Express Delivery Services; (14) Legal Services; (15) Cross-border Data Transfers and Data Localization.

Transparency including (1) Publication of Trade-related Measures; (2)
Notice-and-comment Procedures; (3) Translations.

Legal Framework including (1) Administrative Licensing; (2) Competition Policy.

Most of the topics are longstanding areas of concern for U.S. businesses and the current and prior Administrations. Some are being addressed at least in part in the Phase 1 Agreement.

The mere fact that so many issues remain on the U.S. agenda with China despite years of high level meetings, WTO disputes and other engagements is a reflection of the challenges the U.S. and many other WTO Members have had with China honoring commitments it has made as a Member of the WTO.

Consider the electronic payment services topic as just one example of the areas of interest for the U.S. China made commitments to open this sector by 2006. Yet, despite consultations, a dispute at the WTO, a subsequent commitment by China to comply in 2013, the market remains closed to foreign service suppliers to the present time. China has new commitments to open the market as part of Phase 1 Agreement. Below is the USTR write-up in this year’s report (pages 48-49):

“In 2019, China continued to place unwarranted restrictions on foreign companies, including major U.S. credit and debit card processing companies, which have been seeking to supply electronic payment services to banks and other businesses that issue or accept credit and debit cards in China. In a WTO case that it launched in 2010, the United States argued that China had committed in its WTO accession agreement to open up this sector in 2006, and a WTO panel agreed with the United States in a decision issued in 2012. China subsequently agreed to comply with the WTO panel’s rulings in 2013, but China did not take needed steps even to allow foreign suppliers to apply for licenses until June 2017, when China’s regulator – the PBOC – finalized the establishment of a two-step licensing process in which a supplier must first complete one year of preparatory work before even being able to apply for an actual license.

“Currently, as of January 2020, over six years after China had promised to comply with the WTO’s rulings, no U.S. supplier of electronic payment services has been able to secure the license needed to operate in China’s market due largely to delays caused by PBOC. Indeed, at times, PBOC refused even to accept applications to begin preparatory work from U.S. suppliers, the first of two required steps in the licensing process.

“Throughout the time that China has actively delayed opening up its market to foreign suppliers, China’s national champion, China Union Pay, has used its exclusive access to domestic currency transactions in the China market, and the revenues that come with it, to support its efforts to build out its electronic payment services network abroad, including in the United States. This history shows how China has been able to maintain market-distorting practices that benefit its own companies, even in the face of adverse rulings at the WTO.

“In the U.S.-China Phase One agreement, China committed to ensure that PBOC operates an improved and timely licensing process for U.S. suppliers of electronic payment services so as to facilitate their access to China’s market. The United States will closely monitor PBOC’s licensing process going forward to ensure China’s compliance with its commitments in the Phase One agreement.”


The largest bilateral trade deficit (goods or goods and services) in the world is the U.S. deficit with China. For many years, the U.S. government has catalogued a large number of areas where the deficit is driven or exacerbated by distortions created by Chinese policies. Eighteen years after China’s becoming a WTO Member, the scope of the problems experienced by U.S. businesses attempting to export to China or participate in the Chinese market remains breathtaking.

China has a long history of promising reform that hasn’t occurred as documented in the 2019 and prior USTR reports to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance.

The current Administration has a lot of hope that the Phase 1 Agreement will address specific distortions in a wide range of areas and expand U.S. exports to China. The Administration believes that the enforcement provisions in the agreement will help avoid the lack of implementation by China that has characterized prior efforts.

A great deal more needs to be pursued to achieve true reciprocity with China. Some of the issues that need to be addressed are teed up for the Phase 2 negotiations but will be challenging to achieve agreement on as was reflected in China’s change of position on those same topics in 2019 which resulted in a partial agreement (Phase 1) being pursued instead of a comprehensive one.

The U.S. is actively pursuing WTO reform, working with other trading partners on certain items or going solo in raising major topics for discussion and reform. Unfortunately, China has shown little or no interest in addressing some of the core issues of concern to the U.S. with China’s economic system and policies at the WTO. For example, the U.S. is concerned about distortions created by non-market economies to the functioning of global trade for market economies. The U.S., EU and Japan are addressing the need for new rules to address distortions created by such economies (massive subsidies, state-owned or state-invested enterprises, creation of excess capacity, etc.). The U.S. has flagged the need to change how special and differential treatment works to reflect the changed market situation for countries like China and many others.

The coronavirus global challenge complicates the ability of the WTO or its major Members to pursue reform of the WTO or to achieve completion of negotiations on pending topics (e.g., fisheries subsidies). Concerns about the spread of the virus has led to the postponement of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference which had been scheduled for early June in Kazakhstan. Restrictions on meetings in Geneva and travel from capitals will presumably slow down progress at the WTO.

One should expect the United States to continue to push major reforms at the WTO in 2020. Progress is unlikely to be meaningful in 2020 and some have estimated a reform timeline measured in years (e.g., 2025). Where the WTO is unable to address reform expeditiously, the United States, like other Members will pursue other avenues to address trade concerns. The United States will also pursue bilateral negotiations with China aggressively, seek timely enforcement of existing commitments and use U.S. laws to obtain movement where the other approaches are not delivering results.

As stated in the Executive Summary to this year’s report, “The United States seeks a trade relationship with China that is fair, reciprocal, and balanced.” The current relationship with China meets none of those characteristics in the view of the U.S. Administration. If such a relationship cannot be accomplished through the WTO, this Administration will pursue changes bilaterally or unilaterally if needed.

Agriculture Reform and Liberalization — What is Likely for the WTO’s 12th Ministerial this June?

Agriculture is a critical subject for many WTO Members. Liberalization in agriculture at the GATT and now the WTO has lagged far behind that on industrial goods, a fact readily seen when comparing tariff levels on agricultural goods vs. industrial goods, with agricultural tariffs typically twice or more as high as the bound industrial rates with much higher individual tariffs and with products subject to tariff rate quotas. See, e.g.,

The critical importance of agriculture for human survival for many makes agricultural trade different from trade in manufactured goods. The history of starvation flowing from natural and manmade events make nations reluctant to become too dependent on imported agricultural products. Moreover, most of agriculture is subject to significant variability based on weather conditions and changes. While industrial goods production can be subject to natural events, production tends to be far less dependent on the vagaries of nature.

When the Uruguay Round agreements included initial liberalization in agriculture, there was also agreement to restart talks by 2000 on the next round of liberalization. There were many aspects in the agriculture negotiations during the Doha Development Agenda aimed at achieving increased liberalization, and there have been some achievements in improving liberalization in agriculture over the first twenty-five years of the WTO. Agreement by developed countries to eliminate export subsidies is one important example.

However, the very ambitious agenda during the Doha Round on agriculture has largely not been resolved, and so a range of issues continue to be pursued by various Members or groups of Members within the Special Session of the Agriculture Committee. Which of these items will potentially lead to progress at the upcoming 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan this June is an important part of the ongoing activities in Geneva.

Unfortunately, despite what has been true throughout most of the twenty- five years of the WTO where most documents presented for consideration in negotiations have been made available to the public, the Agriculture Committee Special Session has seen huge numbers of documents, even from the Chair of the Special Session treated as JOB or RD (room) documents with the result that the documents are typically not released to the public. Thus, a document recently released by the Chair entitled “Elements and processes for a possible outcome in agriculture at MC12” (JOB/AG/180) is not public. However, the WTO write-up of the meeting provides an overview of topics explored and identifies topics likely to be manageable by the 12th Ministerial. See “Eyeing MC12 for an outcome, agriculture negotiators focus on doable elements and processes”, WTO news, 24 February 2020,

The topics discussed include most of the topics covered under the Doha Development Agenda including domestic support levels, market access, cotton, export competition, export restrictions, public stockholding and special safeguard mechanism.

Press accounts indicate that, inter alia, transparency improvements have a chance of obtaining agreement by MC 12. In that connection, the United States submitted a paper which was discussed this week that addressed “Notification of Select Domestic Support Variables in the WTO”. The U.S. paper reviewed issues Members had repeatedly raised relevant to the level of domestic support. The U.S. demonstrated that what was supplied in notifications were often viewed as insufficient or were unclear. Thus, the U.S. documented a number of areas where greater transparency would improve the process for all Members being able to understand compliance by trading partners. JOB/AG/181 (19 February 2020)(this job document was released publicly).

Paragraphs 1.3 -1.5 of the U.S. submission provides a summary of where a review of past activities within the Committee on Agriculture (“CoA”) show a need for further transparency and that the U.S. paper is intended to help Members have a technical discussion on transparency in notifications:

“1.3. The United States has identified several areas within the domestic support pillar where CoA discussions are driven by inquiries seeking to gain further transparency in relation to notifications. These areas include: (1) market price support (MPS) (specifically eligible production, adjustments
to the fixed external reference price, and product basis); (2) negative support levels; (3) classification and non-notification; (4) currency and inflation, and (5) value of production (VoP) data. This list is not exhaustive.

“1.4. For each area, this paper attempts to summarize what information has been provided through notifications and what has had to be discerned from questions posed in the CoA. This summary is based primarily on a review of notifications submitted by Members covering the 2005 to 2018 notification years, as well as responses to CoA questions dating back to 1995. Additional Members and years were drawn upon in a limited number of circum- stances to provide a fuller illustrative discussion.

“1.5. This paper is intended to support Members’ ability to engage in a technical discussion regarding transparency in notifications.”

The U.S. paper does an excellent job of laying out important impediments to Members’ understanding core elements of the domestic support information supplied by Members in their notifications. The paper is available below.


As reviewed in earlier posts, increased transparency is an important part of the WTO reform agenda that the U.S. is seeking more broadly. Within agriculture, the failure to have full and timely transparent notifications (including in some instances by the U.S.) handicaps the ability to make substantive progress in other areas. For example, in cotton, the U.S. has long raised the concern that major cotton subsidizers haven’t reported full information on the size of subsidies provided making resolution of the cotton issues unacceptable where major contributors to the problem are not participating.

Other issues being discussed within the Committee on Agriculture’s Special Session are long standing and arguably can’t be quickly resolved without trade offs in other areas. Public stockholding is one such area, although the peace clause introduced at the 10th Ministerial Conference provides interim protection for countries’ support programs in this area. Transparency, limits on what can be done and where product can be sold are all relevant topics within the area of public stockholding. But for agriculture exporting countries, there has been a strong desire for expanded market access which has not happened since the start of the WTO. Public stockholding issues pose a reduction of market access. While the Chair has teed up a suggested solution on public stockholding, it is hard to see any final resolution without expanded liberalization/market access being addressed as well.


While agriculture is important to nearly all WTO Members, the strong divisions between Members and the long term lack of full transparency of programs, subsidies and other issues makes any significant movement over the next few months unlikely. Hence, agriculture will likely have a minor role in the 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan in early June.

The Continued Problem of Inconsistent Transparency at the World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization has attempted over the years to improve its transparency both for the benefit of Members and for the needs of the public in many countries with active interests in the issues being discussed within the WTO. Because the WTO is a member driven organization, there has been a long standing tension between the desire of some for greater transparency and the unwillingness of others to make their submissions available to the public.

Back in 2010, I wrote a trade flow for my law firm which reviewed how the WTO was failing to honor the objectives of greater transparency through the wholesale adoption of a category of documents labeled “JOB” which largely were not made available ever for public review. Nine years later, there has been some improvement and some backsliding in transparency at the WTO.

JOB documents are not the only documents hidden from view in many situations. There is a category of documents called “room documents” (“RD”) that similarly are never released for public review. The classification of documents as JOB documents (or as other unavailable types) is a matter of self-selection by the WTO Member submitting the document and can lead to essentially irrational differences. For example, during the WTO Doha negotiations, the chairs of all negotiating groups except dispute settlement released draft negotiating texts as public documents, and many/most/all of the submissions by members of positions, etc. were also available to the public. For many years, the dispute settlement negotiation group was alone in not releasing the draft text or many of the negotiating proposals.

Similarly, the resort to “informal meetings” means that there are no minutes of the meeting that are kept or released to the public after some period of delay. Looking at the Fishery subsidy negotiations, many documents of submissions by parties are available, but there are no minutes for the many informal meetings, just very abbreviated “summaries” provided.

When there is an inconsistent approach to the treatment of similar documents or when there is movement from formal to informal with a loss of transparency, the public loses and there can be a dimunition in trust of how the WTO is functioning.

Look at the area of agriculture negotiations. There are 202 documents that are shown in the WTO document system with a “JOB/AG” number (these include corrections or revisions) going back to July 1, 2010. Before that time, JOB documents were not broken out by area or typically listed but would occasionally be referenced in statements by the Director General or in Committee reports. Of the 202 JOB/AG documents listed on the WTO document file, 141 are not available to the public. Many of the public documents date from 2017 but there are documents in the last three years that are also not public even if earlier documents of a similar nature were public. For example, JOB/AG/163 is a Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture in Special Session (31 July 2019) and is not public. Yet another report by the same Chairman from 12 days earlier is public (JOB/AG/162). Moreover, to the extent types of documents are now treated as public, there is no system for going back and correcting classification of earlier submissions. And for categories like room documents there is no system for ever making such documents public.

Despite some progress in the first twenty-five years, the WTO has a lot of room for improvement in ensuring that the public can monitor and understand developments in all areas of its operation. WTO Members need to develop more consistent policies on how they treat their own submissions and work with trading partners to maximize transparency.

Below is a trade flow I posted on my law firm’s website on May 12, 2010:

Opening Up the World Trade Organization: How the Promise of Greater Transparency Has Been Compromised By the Wholesale Use of “JOB” Documents

The World Trade Organization (“WTO”) is an intergovernmental organization that came into existence in 1995.  Its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT”), had received relatively little notice and operated largely out of public view.  However, the growing importance globally of trade, the expansion of rules to areas traditionally viewed as domestic in nature, and a dispute settlement system that was more binding on participants all increased the pressure on the WTO to improve its transparency to the public. 

Indeed, when the U.S. Congress was considering implementing the Uruguay Round Agreements that created the WTO into U.S. law, increasing the transparency of the new organization was of great importance.  This is reflected in section 126 of the URAA and the House Report and Statement of Administrative Action on the section:

Sec. 126.  Increased Transparency

The Trade Representative shall seek the adoption by the Ministerial Conference and General Council of procedures that will ensure broader application of the principle of transparency and clarification of the costs and benefits of trade policy actions, through the observance of open and equitable procedures in trade matters by the Ministerial Conference and the General Council, and by the dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body under the Dispute Settlement Understanding.

19 U.S.C. § 3536.  House Rep. No. 103-826(I) at 35 (1994):

Section 126.  Increased transparency

Present law.

No provision.

Explanation of provision

Section 126 of H.R. 5110 directs the USTR to seek adoption by the functional bodies of the WTO of procedures that will ensure broader application of the principle of transparency.

Reasons for change

Through the adoption of more open and equitable procedures, it is the intention of the United States to improve our ability to assess the costs and benefits of WTO trade policy actions.  Members have been concerned, particularly with respect to dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body, that closed meetings and the lack of public availability of documents upon which decisions are based serve to undermine confidence in the decisions of these functional bodies.

Although it is more traditional in international bodies to conduct meetings and make decisions behind closed doors, the Committee believes that the WTO will gain more respect and build confidence if they follow the U.S. experience of providing more open access to the public with respect to key policy or dispute-settlement determinations.  It has become a high priority for the U.S. to persuade other member nations of the WTO to work with us to open the process, provide greater access, provide for voices of dissent and differing views to be heard, and in general make the WTO more accountable to those who are affected by international decision-making.

See also Statement of Administrative Action accompanying the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, H.R. Rep. No. 103-316, 103d Cong., 2d Sess., vol. I, 678-679 (1994).

            The United States was not the only country interested in greater transparency, and the WTO early on did adopt a number of steps to improve transparency.  One such step was the creation of a broader system for derestricting documents so there would be greater public awareness of issues.  See, e.g., WT/L/160/Rev.1 (26 July 1996) (procedures for the circulation and derestriction of WTO documents); WT/L/452 (16 May 2002). 

While WTO meetings generally have not been opened to the public, there has been movement, where disputing parties consent, to open at least some dispute settlement meetings and hearings to public viewing.  The WTO has also done some outreach to the public through formal meeting days in Geneva, the opportunity to submit comments on their webpage, improved access to the public portion of ministerial meetings, briefings on ministerials, and other events, and through other means.  So the WTO can fairly be said to be more transparent than its predecessor, the GATT.  Although many countries continue to have concerns about increased transparency, there are various proposals being considered as part of the ongoing Doha Round —  both within the review of the dispute settlement system and in the Rules negotiations — for additional steps to increase transparency.

But there is one growing problem, in particular, within the WTO that undermines at least some of the progress made in increased transparency that is neither necessary nor, in this author’s view, desirable.  It is the growing presence of “JOB” documents within the system.  Under the WTO classification system, documents which are given a “JOB” number do not become part of the “official WTO documents” and hence escape either categorization, listing, or derestriction to the public.  Indeed, members of the public only know such documents exist because they are referenced in official documents that are public.  Whatever the merits of having documents that are never derestricted, the “JOB” classification is a matter of self-selection, resulting in situations impossible for the public to comprehend.  Thus, a chairman’s draft text [JOB(08)/81 of July 2008] in the dispute settlement negotiations is not available to the public (though it is referenced in the Chairman’s report to the Trade Negotiations Committee, TN/DS/24 (22 March 2010)), while chairmen’s draft texts are available publicly in agriculture, non-agricultural market access, Rules and other areas.  What is the logic of this differential treatment of chairmen’s texts?  There is no obvious answer.

Similarly, in an area like “trade and environment,” some proposals from WTO Members are public while others – including from the United States — are “JOB” documents and not publicly available.  See TN/TE/19 note 19 listing JOB(09)/132 (Canada; European Communities; Japan; Korea; New Zealand; Norway; Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu; Switzerland and United States) (9 Oct. 2009); JOB(09)/169 and Add.1 (Saudi Arabia (6 Nov. 2009 and 15 Dec. 2009); TN/TE/W/75 and Add. 1 (Japan, 27 Nov. 2009 and 16 Feb. 2010) and JOB/TE/2 (Philippines (16 Feb. 2010).  For years, one couldn’t find a public summarization of the competing lists of goods and services that would potentially qualify as environmental for the Doha negotiations, although such summaries are now part of the annual reports.  See TN/TE/19 Annex III.  Why is this permitted?  How can Members square such actions with activity in areas like Rules where all papers have been made public or like agriculture where virtually every country has public submissions?

The problem exists within the Secretariat, which routinely marks summaries as JOB documents.  The problem extends to the Director General, who frequently references in his comments to the General Council or Trade Negotiations Committee one or more JOB documents (e.g., TN/C/M/29 at 2 (referring to JOB(08/132)).  Indeed, the problem exists for all Members, including the strongest advocates of increased transparency like the United States.

The public has no idea how many documents are so marked.  Just from the numbers on some of the JOB documents referenced in other public documents, it appears there may be literally thousands of documents a year that avoid public disclosure or scrutiny.  In addition, the public cannot find a listing of all such documents to be able to at least understand what was submitted even if it is not made public.  Historically in the GATT days, the public could reference an index of documents with full titles even if the document was restricted and not publicly available.  Why should the WTO permit such a retreat from public dissemination of basic information?  Why should the public, increasingly affected by actions of the WTO, accept this state of affairs?  Are there steps that can be taken to drastically reduce if not eliminate this practice?  Why shouldn’t JOB documents that do exist be derestricted just like all “official” documents?

The answers would seem obvious.  For many in the public, there is no justification for the secrecy and “black box” approach to the creation or maintenance of “JOB” documents.  Thus, the best course of action would be to eliminate the use of such categories and require all documents circulated to members to be part of the WTO document collection and subject to derestriction rules.  At a bare minimum, the WTO and its Members should circumscribe which type of documents can legitimately be claimed as such, require prior JOB documents to be reclassified if they don’t meet the criteria, provide a public catalogue of all existing and future “JOB” documents, and determine why a derestriction process should not be applied.

Under the current approach, the WTO and the WTO membership permit entire topics to disappear from public view.  Such an outcome is not acceptable to many Members.  It should be corrected for the good of the system and to honor the public’s right to know what is being discussed by the Members in the WTO.  Correction doesn’t require the completion of a round.  It just requires common sense and the will to keep the promises to make the organization more transparent and more accountable to the people of the world.