While COVID-19 is first and foremost a health crisis, efforts to control the fallout from the virus have led to border controls on farm workers and encouraged some countries to impose export restraints on particular agricultural products. While the border control dimension to the problem is new, the world has in recent years gone through a number of situations where large numbers of countries have imposed export restraints on core agricultural products in an effort to ensure adequate supplies at home. The results are never positive for the global community and particularly harm the least developed countries and those dependent on imported food products.
For example, in 2007-2008, there were dozens of countries that imposed export restraints on specific items such as rice or wheat leading to massive price spikes and shortages of product available to countries dependent on imports. The nature and extent of the problem was outlined in a paper I prepared back in 2008 which is embedded below.
The crisis led to coordinated efforts by the various UN organizations to find solutions and ways of avoiding repeats moving forward. A policy report from multiple UN agencies was released on 2 June 2011, Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses.
Unfortunately, a number of countries in reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic have introduced export restraints on certain food products. Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam are some of the countries identified so far as introducing export restraints on selected agricultural products. In the past, export restraints by some have led to export restraints by many. The possibility of rapidly expanding restraints by trading nations is obviously a major concern and major complication to the global response to COVID-19.
Equally troubling are the potential challenges to agricultural product availability in countries that rely to some extent on temporary foreign labor to harvest produce and other products where border measures are restricting access of foreigners to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. Coupled to that are concerns about whether imported agricultural products meet health and quality needs and any changes in approach to those issues during the pandemic.
As one example of the farm labor concern, the United States is a country that relies on temporary farm workers from outside of the country and has significant restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals from many areas at present. U.S. farmers have raised concerns about the availability of sufficient migrant labor to harvest the fields when product is ready. How the issue gets resolved in the United States is not yet clear. But the same or similar challenges will apply in any country where imported farm labor is important to the harvesting, processing or transporting of agricultural products.
“Joint Statement by QU Dongyu, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Roberto Azevêdo, Directors-General of FAO, WHO and WTO
“Millions of people around the world depend on international trade for their food security and livelihoods. As countries move to enact measures aiming to halt the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic, care must be taken to minimise potential impacts on the food supply or unintended consequences on global trade and food security.
“When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens, countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt the food supply chain. Such disruptions including hampering the movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste. Food trade restrictions could also be linked to unjustified concerns on food safety. If such a scenario were to materialize, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food insecure populations.
“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions can alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility. We learned from previous crises that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure food for those in desperate need.
“We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage. Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements.
“We must also ensure that information on food-related trade measures, levels of food production, consumption and stocks, as well as on food prices, is available to all in real time. This reduces uncertainty and allows producers, consumers and traders to make informed decisions. Above all, it helps contain ‘panic buying’ and the hoarding of food and other essential items.
“Now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition and improving the general welfare of people around the world. We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition.”
There is little doubt that COVID-19 is placing extraordinary strains on countries, their peoples, their economies and the ability and willingness to act globally as opposed to locally. The strains and how the world reacts will shape the world going forward and determine the magnitude of the devastation that occurs in specific markets and the broader global community.
The global health emergency is significantly worsened by the introduction of food security issues. Despite a better understanding of the causes and necessary approaches to minimize food security issues, the world has a poor track record on working for the collective good in agriculture when fears of food availability arise. An eruption of export restraints at the time of the global COVID-19 health crisis could indeed undermine societal stability.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases (COVID-19) as of March 26, 2020 was approaching 500,000 globally, with the rate of increase in cases continuing to surge in a number of important countries or regions (e.g., Europe and the United States) with the locations facing the greatest strains shifting over time.
In an era of global supply chains, few countries are self-sufficient in all medical supplies and equipment needed to address a pandemic. Capacity constraints can occur in a variety of ways, including from overall demand exceeding the supply (production and inventories), from an inability or unwillingness to manage supplies on a national or global basis in an efficient and time responsive manner, by the reduction of production of components in one or more countries reducing the ability of downstream producers to complete products, by restrictions on modes of transport to move goods internationally or nationally, from the lack of availability of sufficient medical personnel or physical facilities to handle the increased work load and lack of facilities.
The reality of exponential growth of COVID-19 cases over weeks within a given country or region can overwhelm the ability of the local health care system to handle the skyrocketing demand. When that happens, it is a nightmare for all involved as patients can’t be handled properly or at all in some instances, death rates will increase, and health care providers and others are put at risk from a lack of adequate supplies and protective gear. Not surprisingly, shortages of supplies and equipment have been identified in a number of countries over the last three months where the growth in cases has been large. While it is understandable for national governments to seek to safeguard supplies of medical goods and equipment to care for their citizens, studies over time have shown that such inward looking actions can be short sighted, reduce the global ability to handle the crisis, increase the number of deaths and prevent the level of private sector response that open markets would support.
As we approach the end of March, the global community receives mixed grades on their efforts to work jointly and to avoid beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Many countries have imposed one or more restraints on exports of medical supplies and equipment with the number growing rapidly as the spread of COVID-19 outside of China has escalated particularly in March. Indeed, when one or more countries impose export restraints, it often creates a domino effect as countries who may depend in part on supplies from one or more of those countries, decides to impose restraints as well to limit shortages in country.
At the same time, the G-7, G-20 and others have issued statements or other documents indicating their political desire to minimize export restraints and keep trade moving. The WTO is collecting information from Members on actions that have been taken in response to COVID-19 to improve transparency and to enable WTO Members to identify actions where self-restraint or roll back would be useful. And some countries have engaged in unilateral tariff reductions on critical medical supplies and equipment.
Imposition of Export Restraints
The World Customs Organization has developed a list of countries that have imposed some form of export restraint in 2020 on critical medical supplies. In reviewing the WCO website today, the following countries were listed: Argentina, Bulgaria, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, European Union, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Serbia, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. Today’s listing is copied below.
While China is not listed on the WCO webpage, it is understood that they have had some restrictions in fact at least during the January-February period of rapid spread of COVID-19 in China.
While it is surprising to see the European Union on the list, the Official Journal notice of the action indicates that the action is both temprary (six weeks – will end around the end of April) and flows in part from the fact that sources of product used by the EU had been restricting exports. The March 15, 2020 Official Journal notice is attached below.
Professor Simon Evenett, in a March 19, 2020 posting on VOX, “Sickening thy neighbor: Export restraints on medical supplies during a pandemic,” https://voxeu.org/article/export-restraints-medical-supplies-during-pandemic, reviews the challenges posed and provides examples of European countries preventing exports to neighbors — Germany preventing a shipment of masks to Switzerland and France preventing a shipment to the U.K.
In a webinar today hosted by the Washington International Trade Association and the Asia Society Policy Institute entitled “COVID-19 and Trade – A WTO Agenda,” Prof. Evenett reviewed his analysis and noted that the rate of increase for export restraints was growing with 48 of 63 actions occurring in March and 8 of those occurring in the last forty-eight hours. A total of 57 countries are apparently involved in one or more restraints. And restraints have started to expand from medical supplies and equipment to food with four countries mentioned by Prof. Evenett – Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam.
Efforts to keep markets open and liberalize critical medical supplies
Some countries have reduced tariffs on critical medical goods during the pandemic and some countries have also implemented green lane approaches for customs clearance on medical supplies and goods. Such actions are clearly permissible under the WTO, can be undertaken unilaterally and obviously reduce the cost of medical supplies and speed up the delivery of goods that enter from offshore. So it is surprising that more countries don’t help themselves by reducing tariffs temporarily (or permanently) on critical medical supplies and equipment during a pandemic.
Groups of countries have staked out positions of agreeing to work together to handle the pandemic and to keep trade open. For example, the G20 countries had a virtual emergency meeting today to explore the growing pandemic. Their joint statement can be found here and is embedded below, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_26mar20_e.pdf.
There is one section of the joint statement that specifically addresses international trade disruptions during the pandemic. That language is repeated below:
“Addressing International Trade Disruptions
“Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well-being of all people.
“We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. We task our Trade Ministers to assess the impact of the pandemic on trade.
“We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.”
Separately, New Zealand and Singapore on March 21st issued a Joint Ministerial Statement which stated in part,
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious global crisis.
“As part of our collective response to combat the virus, Singapore and New Zealand are committed to maintaining open and connected supply chains. We will also work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities,”
When a pandemic strikes, many countries have trouble maintaining open trade policies on critical materials in short supply and/or in working collaboratively to address important supply chain challenges or in taking unilateral actions to make critical supplies available more efficiently and at lower costs.
The current global response to COVID-19 presents the challenges one would expect to see – many countries imposing temporary restrictions on exports — while positive actions in the trade arena are more limited to date with some hopeful signs of a potential effort to act collectively going forward.
Time will tell whether governments handling of the trade dimension of the pandemic contributes to the equitable solution of the pandemic or exacerbates the challenges and harm happening to countries around the world.
During the Uruguay Round, various special and differential treatment provisions were included in the agreements being negotiated. The Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (“ASCM”) included provisions that would give developing countries and least developed countries higher subsidy de minimis levels and higher negligibility levels. See ASCM Art. 11.9 (de minimis level of subsidies is 1%; negligible imports not subject to orders), Art. 27.10 (de minimis level of subsidies is 2% for developing countries; negligibility is 4% of total imports for developing countries or 9% for multiple developing countries).
The Uruguay Round Agreements Act implemented these requirements within U.S. law. Negligible imports from any country are 3% of total imports (7% for multiple countries each less than 3%) and 4% and 9% for developing/least developed countries. De minimis subsidy levels are 1% generally but 2% for developing and least developed countries. See 19 U.S.C. 1671b(b)(4) and 19 U.S.C. 1677(24)(A) and (B).
Under U.S. law, the U.S. Trade Representative is charged with developing a list of developing and least developed countries for purposes of U.S. countervailing duty law. Such a list should be published and should be updated as necessary. 19 U.S.C. 1677(36). While some criteria are listed in the statute, USTR is given discretion on what other criteria to consider.
The New List Brings Forward the U.S. Position at the WTO on Need for Differentiation Among Countries
The Federal Register notice of February 10, while not referencing the U.S. position at the WTO on the need for differentiation for purposes of which WTO Members take advantage of special and differential treatment, largely uses the same factors proposed at the WTO for determining which countries should not be afforded developing country/least developed country status for purposes of U.S. countervailing duty law.
Specifically, USTR for its new list looked to (1) per capita GNI excluding any country listed as a high income country by the World Bank, (2) share of world trade (reduced from 2% in 1998 to 0.5% in 2020), (3) membership or application for membership in the OECD, (4) G20 membership, (5)(not in the WTO differentiation proposal) membership in the EU and (6) any WTO members who did not declared itself a developing country during accession to the WTO where its per capita GNI is lower than high income. A country that satisfied any of the five criteria are excluded from the higher de minimis and higher negligibility standards
High income countries based on World Bank June 2019 data
Various countries or territories like Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Oman, Chile are listed as high income and would not be eligible for increased de minimis or higher negligibility standards under U.S. countervailing duty law based on this criteria.
Share of world trade (0.5% or greater)
Besides Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore which had been excluded from the 1998 list based on their share of global trade, the new list excludes Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam based on share of world trade figures. 85 FR at 7615.
Membership in or application to the OECD
Colombia and Costa Rica are excluded from higher de minimis and negligibility levels under U.S. countervailing duty law based on their application for membership to the OECD. 85 FR at 7615.
Membership in the G20
The G20 came into existence in 1999, thus after the 1998 list was published by USTR. China has not been treated as eligibile for higher de minimis or higher negligibility levels and continues not to be considered for eligibility. Other G20 countries (besides China) who are not eligible despite per capita GNI levels below high income are Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. 85 FR at 7615.
Membership in the EU
Several EU member countries are not high income countries on the World Bank list but are excluded from higher de minimis and negligibility levels on the new list — Bulgaria and Romania. 85 FR at 7615.
WTO Members who have not claimed developing country status at accession
While the U.S. would not have flagged countries who did not claim developing country status at accession but whose per capita GNI was below high income as needing to be addressed in its differentiation papers at the WTO, such countries are not included in the list of countries eligible for higher de minimis and negligibility levels under U.S. countervailing duty law. This list includes Albania, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine.
Likely Importance of the Changes in the USTR List
Data compiled by the WTO from country notifications of investigations brought under national countervailing duty laws, shows that between January 1, 1995 and June 30, 2019 (latest data presently available), the U.S. initiated 254 countervailing duty investigations. One or more investigations were brought against imports of products from 37 countries. See the WTO chart below.
While there have been no countervailing duty cases in the United States against the vast majority of WTO Members during the first twenty-five years of the WTO, the changes in the list could be relevant for some countries where there have been CVD cases in the past — Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Vietnam being the most likely countries affected. Any changes in results would depend on the underlying facts and may be relevant in only some cases or for one or more producers in a given case.
Monday’s Federal Register notice from the U.S. Trade Representative will not result generally in significant changes in how U.S. countervailing duty law operates. It could be important in particular cases or against particular exporters.
The real importance would appear to be the Administration’s taking its views on differentiation and applying them to an important U.S. trade remedy as a sign of the seriousness of the need to obtain a modification to who is eligible for special and differential treatment. The larger issue is viewed by the United States as critical to restoring the negotiating function at the WTO.
When WTO Members launched the Doha Development Agenda in November 2001, one of the topics to be explored was fisheries subsidies as outlined as part of the Rules paragraph 28:
“In the context of these negotiations, participants shall also aim to clarify and improve WTO disciplines on fisheries subsidies, taking into account the importance of this sector to developing countries.” Ministerial Declaration, para. 28, WT/MIN(01)/Dec/1.
Fisheries subsidies were also mentioned in paragraph 31 of the Declaration dealing with topics within trade and environment that would be explored.
More than 18 years later, WTO members are pushing to reach agreement on new disciplines on fisheries subsidies by the time of the 12th Ministerial Conference to be held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in early June 2020.
The push is related to the 2020 deadline included in the September 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDG”) 14.6: “by 2020, prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation.” The term “IUU” refers to “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing.
At the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference, WTO members adopted a decision to complete fisheries subsidies negotiations by the next Ministerial Conference. See WT/MIN(17)/64; WT/L/1031:
“MINISTERIAL DECISION OF 13 DECEMBER 2017
“The Ministerial Conference
“Decides as follows:
“1. Building on the progress made since the 10th Ministerial Conference as reflected in documents TN/RL/W/274/Rev.2, RD/TN/RL/29/Rev.3, Members agree to continue to engage constructively in the fisheries subsidies negotiations, with a view to adopting, by the Ministerial Conference in 2019, an agreement on comprehensive and effective disciplines that prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU-fishing recognizing that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing country Members and least developed country Members should be an integral part of these negotiations.
“2. Members re-commit to implementation of existing notification obligations under Article 25.3 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures thus strengthening transparency with respect to fisheries subsidies.”
Why the interest in fisheries subsidies?
For decades, the world has been experiencing overfishing of various species of fish in different parts of the world. The U.N.Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that between 1974 and 2015 fish stocks that are not within biologically sustainable levels increased from 10% in 1974 to 33.1% in 2015. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 (“2018 Report) at 6. This decline has occurred despite efforts made by various countries to regulate capture/production.
“Despite the continuous increase in the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels, progress has been made in some regions. For example, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels increased from 53 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2016 in the United States of America, and from 27 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2015 in Australia.” 2018 Report at 6.
Because of, inter alia, the importance of the fishing industry to many countries and fish to the diets of many peoples, there has been concern for many years with actions needed by nations to ensure the sustainability of fish captures.
The FAO’s 2018 Report provides a great deal of information on the importance of fish to developing and least developed countries and the various actions being taken to address meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) pertaining to fish and the oceans.
The WTO’s negotiations on fisheries subsidies are just one part of the much larger group of SDGs being pursued by countries as part of the UN targets and only deals with ocean/sea wild caught fish, not with aquaculture and not with inland caught fish. The FAO’s 2018 Report is attached below.
As Table 1 in the 2018 Report shows, there has been a rapid growth in aquaculture so that by 2016, there was greater volume from aquaculture than there was from “marine caught”. Specifically, in 2016 aquaculture accounted fro 80.0 million metric tons (46.8%) of the total production/ capture, marine capture was 79.3 million metric tons (46.4%) and inland capture was 11.6 million metric tons (6.8%) – for a total of 170.9 million metric tons. Data do not include information on aquatic mammals, crocodiles, alligators, caimans, seaweeds and other aquatic plants. 2018 Report, Table 1, page 4.
While aquaculture has grown, marine capture has declined or stagnated over time and with growing levels of overfishing, longer term decline will occur in this sector absent concerted steps to manage the volume pursued at sea. Overfishing is believed due to overbuilding of fishing fleets and the level of fishing that contravenes national laws, is unrecorded and/or unregulated. Thus, the efforts within the WTO to impose disciplines on subsidies benefiting IUU fishing and/or contributing to overfishing are an important element in achieving catch rates that are sustainable versus unsustainable and declining.
Importance of marine fishing to developed, developing and least developed countries
The FAO gathers information on the amount of marine capture (as well as inland capture and aquaculture) annually. The latest data available from FAO are for 2017. FAO, Fishery and Aquaculture Statistical Yearbook 2017, http://www.fao.org/fishery/static/Yearbook/YB2017_USBcard/index.htm. The average marine caught volumes for the years 2015-2017 from the FAO data base were summarized for WTO Members in a July 11, 2019 submission to the WTO rules negotiations addressing fisheries subsidies. The submission was made by Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay. Top marine caught Members are presented below in millions of metric tons and percent of world production:
Production (mm tonnes)
% of World Production
Republic of Korea
TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2, pages 4-7, Annex I (11 July 2019). Data for the EU and the US contain data from various islands referenced on page 4 in fotnotes a and b. The Annex lists 136 of the 164 WTO members and their production/volumes although no data are available for 28 WTO members (some of which are landlocked and hence may have no marine caught fish). The full listing is attached below.
As reviewed in the 2018 Report (page 2), fish make up an increasing share of animal protein for humans, with 100% of the increase being accounted for by expanding aquaculture:
“The expansion in consumption has been driven not only by increased production, but also by other factors, including reduced wastage. In 2015, fish accounted for about 17 percent of animal protein consumed by the global population. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein. Despite their relatively low levels of fish consumption, people in developing countries have a higher share of fish protein in their diets than those in developed countries. The highest per capita fish consumption, over 50 kg, is found in several small island developing States (SIDS), particularly in Oceania, while the lowest levels, just above 2 kg, are in Central Asia and some landlocked countries.”
Fishing/fisheries are an important source of employment for many countries, with the vast majority of such employment being in countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Specifically in 2016 worldwide fisheries employment was estimated at 40.338 million people (no breakout between marine and inland caught). Of this number, 31.990 million were in Asia ((79.3%), 5.367 million were in Africa (13.3%) and 2.085 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean (5.2%) , with just 896,000 jobs in North America, Europe and Oceania. Several important individual countries are shown in the 2018 Report — China with 14.5 million jobs in fisheries in 2016 (36% of global) and Indonesia with 2.7 million folks employed in fisheries (6.7% of global employment in the sector). 2018 Report at 32-33. Much of the employment in fisheries around the world is from family run operations, often subsistence in nature, and mainly using small boats (less than 12 meters in length and a large portion of which are not motorized).
The 2018 Report indicates that in 2016 the number of fishing vessels in the world were 4.6 million, 2.8 million of which were motorized. Of the 4.6 million vessels, 75.4% were in Asia, 14.0% in Africa, 6.4% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2.1% in Europe, 1.8% in North America and 0.3% in Oceania. 100% of Europe’s vessels were motorized, more than 90% of those in North America, but only some 25% in Africa. See pages 36-38 of the 2018 Report.
WTO Efforts at Increasing Disciplineson Marine Fisheries Subsidies
The negotiations have been complicated by many issues that are not typical for trade negotiations. Here are a few of the perceived problem issues:
(a) problem being addressed relates to depletion of scarce global resources through overfishing flowing from subsidies that create excess capacity;
(b) production occurs not only in national waters but in the open seas and through contracts to capture fish in third countries’ waters;
(c) concerns about effect of negotiations on outstanding territorial disputes/claims;
(d) the challenge of disciplining subsidies provided by one country on fishing vessels which are flagged in a different country;
(e) the lack of meaningful data from many developing and least developed countries which complicates understanding the level of marine capture;
(f) for many developing and least developed countries, the large part of fishing fleets which are subsistence or artisanal in nature;
(g) the large portion of global capture which is developing and least developed country in origin vs. desire for special and differential treatment for such countries;
(h) challenge of whether traditional S&D provisions (exclusion from disciplines, lesser reductions, longer implementation periods) are actually harmful to developing and least developed countries where continued erosion of marine catch from overfishing will actually hurt the fishermen and fisherwomen of the countries receiving S&D consideration;
(i) whether dispute settlement as applicable to other WTO agreements (whether SCMA or other) will serve the underlying objectives of any negotiated agreement or needs to be modified to reflect the unique objectives of the agreement.
On the question of level of subsidization, there are the usual questions of what, if any, subsidies will be allowed as not causing concerns re growing capacity or overfishing and whether there is some level of acceptable subsidies even if adding to capacity.
While the set of public documents from the negotiations are reasonable through much of 2018, the resort to Room Documents (which are not made public) and other classification of documents, means that much of the current drafts of sections of a possible agreement are not publicly available. For example, there were ten documents identified as made available to WTO Members for the May 8, 2019 Informal Open-ended Negotiating Group on Rules (Fisheries Subsidies). Seven of the ten documents are not available to the public as “Room Documents” even if the documents were generated weeks or months before the meeting. See, e.g., RD/TN/RL/72 (17/12/2018); RD/TN/RL/81 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/77/Rev.1 (21/03/2019); RD/TN/RL/82 (08/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/79/Rev.1 (18/04/2019); RD/TN/RL/83 (02/05/2019); RD/TN/RL/84 (06/05/2019).
Similarly, WTO Members have done a relatively poor job of notifying the subsidies provided to marine fisheries. Even with improvements in notifications in 2019, as late as November 2019, nine of the 26 largest providers of fisheries subsidies had not provided notifications and some who had done so in 2019 submitted the first notifications of such programs in 20 years. Members welcome progress in notification of fisheries subsidies, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/scm_19nov19_e.htm.
There is a draft document from the Chair of the negotiations from 14 November 2018, TN/RL/W/274/Rev.6 which lays out the Chair’s understanding of negotiations as of that date. The document is attached below and is heavily bracketed meaning that at the time of the draft there was not agreement on the bracketed text or options were shown.
Some public submissions show that countries or groups of countries are still putting forward approaches on topics of importance. For example there are 2019 submissions on the following topics: fishing vessels not flying the member’s flag (e.g., TN/RL/GEN/201/Rev.1 (proposed prohibiting subsidies to such vessels)(Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, and Uruguay), on a cap-based approach to addressing certain fisheries subsidies [(TN/RL/GEN/197/Rev.2) and TN/RL/GEN/203)(Argentina, Australia, the United States, and Uruguay) vs. different approach put forward by China (TN/RL/199)], on whether different dispute settlement principles need to be considered (TN/RL/GEN/198, Canadian discussion paper), the breadth of special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries (TN/RL/200, submission from India).
Interestingly, a submission from New Zealand and Iceland in 2018 warned other WTO members that a focus on fishing in international waters vs. marine catch in national waters would result in any agreement addressing very little of the marine catch volume as would other overly narrow scope approaches:
‘6.SDG Target 14.6 is clear that subsidies that contribute to both overcapacity and overfishing must be prohibited. An outcome which excluded the most harmful types of subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing would therefore not satisfy SDG Target 14.6. An outcome that addressed capacity or overfishing in just a hortatory way or in a manner that applied disciplines only to a small subset of subsidies or the world’s fishing fleet would similarly fail to meet the requirements of SDG Target 14.6.
“7. For example, the current emphasis on subsidies to fishing beyond national jurisdiction is warranted given the weaker governance and resource and development impacts of such fishing. This however must not be at the exclusion of waters under national jurisdiction where the vast majority of global catch – 88% – is taken.1 Similarly, the emphasis on overfished stocks should not equate to an exception for other stocks as doing so would exclude nearly 70% of the world’s fisheries.2 Taken together, these two approaches alone would result in barely 8% of the world’s fisheries being subject to subsidy prohibitions.3 “2 FAO. 2016. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016. “3 Two thirds of fish stocks managed by RFMOs are overfished or depleted: Cullis-Suzuki, S. & Pauly, D. (2010). Failing the high seas: a global evaluation of regional fisheries management organization. Marine Policy 34: 1036–1042.”
Advancing Fisheries Subsidies Prohibitions on Subsidies Contributing to Overcapacity and Overfishing, TN/RL/W/275 at 2 (8 May 2018)(New Zealand and Iceland).
Will WTO Members Deliver Meaningful Fisheries Subsidies Reform
The fact that the negotiations have taken more tan 18 years and that major countries appear to remain widely apart on many key issues suggests that the road to success will be challenging.
For example, India’s proposal for S&D would result in large amounts of fisheries subsidies not being addressed by the agreement (whatever the scope of subsidies addressed) rendering any agreement of minimal assistance in fact if adopted following that approach.
There are significant differences in approaches to limiting subsidies as can be seen in the different cap approaches presented by China and a group of other countries (Argentina, Australia, the United States and Uruguay).
Similarly, there is a disconnect between the problems being addressed (overcapacity and overfishing) and the traditional role of S&D to eliminate, reduce and/or delay obligations. For the fisheries subsidies negotiations to achieve a meaningful result, the WTO Members need to revisit what the role of special and differential needs to be to achieve better marine catch for developing and least developed countries. The focus needs to be on helping LDCs and developing countries develop accurate data on marine catch, developing the capacity to participate in regional management programs, finding assistance to fishermen and fisherwomen affected by depleted marine catches to survive/choose alternative work until such time as sustainable levels of wild caught fish are again available. But all countries need to contribute to limiting fisheries subsidies where excess capacity or overfishing are the likely result.
And there is the U.S. position that S&D will only be approved in any new agreement if it is limited to those countries with an actual need (i.e., certain countries would not take such benefits). Considering the role of major countries like China and India in marine catch, one can expect challenges in having those countries (and possibly others) agree to forego S&D provisions.
Net/net – as most Members seem to be focused on the wrong questions, there is a reasonable probability that the Kazakhstan Ministerial will not see a meaningful set of disciplines adopted on fisheries subsidies to address the challenges to marine catch from overcapacity and overfishing.
The U.S. trade deficit has been at extraordinarily high levels for many years, having ranged from $766.6 to 818.0.billion/year during 2005-2008 (2nd term of President George W. Bush). After a sharp contraction in trade during the 2009-2010 period as the country dealt with the great recession flowing from the financial crisis that started in 2008 (with resulting significantly lower trade deficits), trade deficits ran from $689.5 to $745.5 billion/year during the 2011-2016 years of President Obama’s tenure (2016 trade deficit was $735.3 billion).
President Trump has had a significant focus on trade
issues during his presidency. His
Administration has attempted to address the chronic trade deficit the country
has developed over the last fifty years through improved trade deals,
aggressive enforcement of various trade laws and some domestic actions
(regulations and taxation). Despite
these actions, the first two years and nine months of the Trump Administration
saw a significant expansion of the trade deficit in 2017 ($793.4 billion) and
2018 ($874.8 billion) – an increase by 2018 of 18.97% over 2016 levels) – with
a stabilization in the first nine months of 2019 (up 1.43% from the first nine
months of 2018 at $647.6 billion).
A growth in the trade deficit during 2017-2019 reflects
various causes including: (1) continued
economic growth in the U.S. and slower growth rates in much of the rest of the
world; (2) a delay in the trade balance effects flowing from the
Administration’s trade actions against China under Section 301 of the Trade Act
of 1974 and against many countries on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of
the Trade Expansion Act of 1962; (3) retaliation by various trading partners
for actions taken by the U.S.; and (4) shifts in currency values.
The huge trade deficit with China declined by $38.5
billion or by 12.77% in the first nine months of 2019 reflecting the large
tariffs applied by the U.S. on huge parts of Chinese exports to the U.S. which
exceeded the contraction in U.S. exports to China flowing from retaliation by
the Chinese. However, there was more
than a $47.7 billion increase in the deficit from trade flows with other
countries during the first nine months of 2019.
Below are some of the countries with whom the U.S. trade deficit has increased
in the first three quarters of 2019 by more than $5.0 billion. Data reflect the size of the increase in the
U.S. trade deficit with the particular country: :
Country or Group of Countries
Increase in U.S. Trade Deficit 9 months 2019
European Union (28)
Vietnam and Taiwan could be in some significant part
the result of shifting shipments from China to neighboring countries where
Chinese or other producers have investments, where producers have found
alternative sourcing or where there has been shipment of products from China
which have been mislabeled as to origin.
Similarly, the large increase from Mexico may
reflect in part a move back to Mexico or increased sourcing from Mexico for
companies previously sourcing from China.
An UNCTAD Research Paper (No.
37) entitled “Trade and trade diversion effects of United States tariffs on
China” released recently made similar findings for imports in the first half of
2019. https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2569. As noted in the Abstract to the paper (page
“This paper finds that United States tariffs against
China have resulted in a reduction in imports of the tariffed products by more
than 25 percent. The analysis finds that China’s export losses in the United
States have resulted in trade diversion effects to the advantage of Taiwan
Province of China, Mexico, the European Union and Viet Nam among others. The
analysis also finds that those effects have increased over time. The analysis
finds some preliminary evidence that Chinese exporters may have started to bear
part of the costs of the tariffs in the form of lower export prices. Overall,
the results indicate that the United States tariffs on China are economically
hurting both countries. United States losses are largely related to the higher
prices for consumers, while China’s losses are related to significant export
The shift in trade balance for the mentioned
countries and for the U.S. as a whole is explained in the following table which
shows the change in U.S. total exports and in U.S. general imports during the
first nine months of 2019 vs. the same period of 2018:
European Union (28)
Subtotal (Mex.- Taiwan)
From all countries
Thus, in the first nine months of 2019, US trade
with China fell in both directions, with imports from China declining by $53.0
billion and U.S. total exports to China declining $15.2 billion. Trade with Mexico and Switzerland saw
declines in U.S. total exports to each country (-$4.3 billion and -$4.5 billion
respectively) while imports from those countries into the U.S. increased
(+$12.8 billion and +$2.8 billion). For
the European Union, Vietnam and Taiwan, the U.S. saw total exports increase,
but at much slower amounts than the increase in U.S. imports from those
When looking at the 2-digit HS categories that saw the
largest changes in the U.S. trade balance with China in 2019, the three largest
improvements in the U.S. trade balance with China were in HS chapters 84, 85
and 94 dealing with nonelectrical equipment, electrical equipment and furniture
respectively. The U.S. trade balance with China improved by $17.0 billion,
$18.8 billion and $4.0 billion for these three chapters respectively, largely due
to contractions in imports from China on those items. In a prior post (October 13) on the announced
likelihood of a first phase U.S.-China agreement, I reviewed the contraction in
U.S. exports of agricultural products, particularly soybeans, that happened in
2018 (down $10.2 billion from 2017).
There has been some limited improvement in U.S. exports of soybeans in
the first nine months of 2019 and so no agriculture products saw huge declines
in exports in 2019 or large reductions in the US trade surplus with China this
Some of the
U.S. trade balance improvement vis-à-vis China on these specific manufactured goods was offset by increased deficits with
Mexico ($1.7 billion for Chapter 84, $1.3 billion for Chapter 85), the EU ($6.9
billion for Chapter 84), Taiwan ($4.3 billion for Chapter 84, $1.7 billion for
Chapter 85) and Vietnam ($0.5 billion for Chapter 84, $7.6 billion for Chapter
85, $1.3 billion for Chapter 94).
The challenge for any administration attempting to
change trade flows is the time it takes to achieve new agreements, to implement
specific actions, and to design and obtain approval for new legislation. Such challenges reflect the state of play for
many of the Trump Administration’s trade efforts to date. Benefits from the initial agreements with
Japan signed on October 7 will likely be seen in 2020 if Japan is able to
implement the agreements through legislation this month as is reported as
possible in the media. Changes from the
USMCA will depend on whether and when Congress takes up implementing
legislation. The Administration is
hoping to conclude and sign a first phase trade agreement with China yet this
year. Such an agreement with China will
likely result in at least a standstill on tariffs against China and likely some
reductions in tariff levels phased in over time based on results of implementation
efforts by both sides. An agreement with
China would also improve market conditions for some U.S. products shipped to
China, with reported commitments for increased purchases of various U.S.
agricultural products as but one example.
Discussions are ongoing with other countries on specific trade concerns,
and so additional improvements in market access may yet occur during the
current term of President Trump’s Administration.
Businesses understandably look for predictability in
both the trade environment and the rules of engagement with trading
partners. With the heavy focus on
revising domestic trade policy and the aggressive use of legislative tools on
the books, the Trump Administration’s efforts to date have created a great deal
of uncertainty for businesses. Some
businesses have been harmed at least short term, others have benefited from the
actions taken by the Administration. Whether
the changes being pursued by the Administration will achieve the objectives
sought is an open question. A review of the
changes in trade flows (U.S. imports and U.S. exports) from the Trump
Administration’s first thirty-three months in office show that changes towards
greater trade balance will not occur quickly nor without a fair amount of
disruption to supply chains, business models and companies and many
workers. A more sustainable trade
environment is an important objective. Not
since the early 1970s has an Administration been concerned about large and
increasing trade deficits. The Trump
Administration has been concerned and has been attempting to change domestic
and international trade policy to restore greater balance. Whether meaningful change will occur is
almost certainly a multiple Administration project. Whether the project will be pursued will
depend in part on what is achieved under the current Administration.