WTO Reform

Alan Wolff’s vision for saving the WTO — aspirational but is it achievable?

Alan Wolff served as a Deputy Director-General at the World Trade Organization until the end of March this year. He is now a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. While at the WTO, DDG Wolff was a frequent speaker to Members and groups on various aspects of the WTO, its importance to bettering lives and promoting peace and the need for reform to remain relevant. I have covered some of former DDG Wolff’s statements in prior posts. See, e.g., March 6, 2021, WTO’s four Deputy Directors-General tenure reportedly concludes at the end of March 2021 — thanks for an outstanding job, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/03/06/wtos-four-deputy-directors-general-tenure-reportedly-concludes-at-the-end-of-march-2021-thanks-for-an-outstanding-job/ (DDG Wolff gave 142 speeches between October 2017 and March 6, 2021); December 8, 2020, Trade for Peace Week at the WTO – a positive look at how trade can and should contribute to global peace and stability, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/12/08/trade-for-peace-week-at-the-wto-a-positive-look-at-how-trade-can-and-should-contribute-to-global-peace-and-stability/; November 22, 2020, DDG Wolff’s comments to G20 on immediate challenges for trade to address economic rebound from the pandemic and for WTO reform, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/22/ddg-wolffs-comments-to-g20-on-immediate-challenges-for-trade-to-address-economic-rebound-from-the-pandemic-and-for-wto-reform/; November 10, 2020, The values of the WTO – do Members and the final Director-General candidates endorse all of them?, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/11/10/the-values-of-the-wto-do-members-and-the-final-director-general-candidates-endorse-all-of-them/.

On April 29, 2021, the Peterson Institute of International Economics presented an hour virtual program with Mr. Wolff during which he presented his thoughts on “Saving the WTO, A Roadmap to the Future” and answered questions. Mr. Wolff provided a paper, and a slide deck (which he went through during his presentation). Links to the virtual meeting, his paper and his slide deck can be found here: PIIE Virtual Event, The Future of the WTO, April 29, 2021, Chttps://www.piie.com/events/future-wto; Alan Wm. Wolff, Saving the WTO, A Roadmap to the Future of the World Trade Organization, April 29, 2021, https://www.piie.com/sites/default/files/documents/wolff-4-29-2021speech.pdf; Alan Wm. Wolff, presentation slides, Saving the WTO, A Rodmap to the Future, April 29, 2021, https://www.piie.com/sites/default/files/documents/wolff-4-29-2021ppt.pdf.

Mr. Wolff’s paper, slide deck, and presentation reflect his thinking on the importance of the World Trade Organization, the challenges that need to be addressed to get to a future of continued importance for the WTO and reforms that will be required in the structure and operation of the organization. For those with an interest in the multilateral trading system and the challenges defining the current mix of global trade needs, Mr. Wolff’s materials are an important resource and will undoubtedly spark a lot of discussion in Geneva, in capitals and among those caring about a viable trading system. While there are practical aspects of his paper, the paper in total is aspirational. While there are many questions about whether the elements of the roadmap laid out are achievable and while there are some potential missing links or sequencing issues that may prevent forward movement on some items, Mr. Wolff’s vision of what could be is worth careful evaluation.

Mr. Wolff reviews that the WTO governs more than three quarters of world trade, is the basis for the hundreds of free trade agreements and has all Members stating that the system serves their interests. Negotiations, transparency/ implementation and dispute settlement are the core elements. For fragile and conflict-affected countries, membership supports achieving peace through improving opportunities for citizens. Since the late 1940s, the GATT and now the WTO have seen huge increases in trade with billions of lives improved as a result.

While the value of the WTO is encapsulated in the above aspects, there are obviously many problems that plague the current functioning of the WTO. Some are discussed in Mr. Wolff’s paper — e.g., mistrust, limited success of negotiating function, lack of full transparency, breakdown of the dispute settlement system, and changing economic profile of Members and hence obligations Members should assume.

There are eight current major challenges that Mr. Wolff identifies as needing to be addressed to get to the future (slides 8 and 9):

“1. Dealing with the trade aspects of fighting the pandemic.

“2. Using trade to boost the economic recover, with special attention to developing countries.

“3. Making the recovery greener.

“4. Assuring that carbon border adjustment measures are based on cooperation and do not become a source of conflict.

“5. Forestalling fragmentation of the digital economy.

“6. Putting into place binding dispute settlement that is accepted as legitimate by all litigants.

“7. Making the trading system visibly more positive for workers.

“8. Reforming the WTO as an institution.”

Dispute Settlement discussion

There are many specific proposals for actions that are suggested to be taken under each of the topics. Each section of the paper is worth careful review. For purposes of this post, because I have written extensively on dispute settlement, I look at the section of Mr. Wolff’s paper dealing with dispute settlement (pages 14-18). Mr. Wolff’s discussion is copied below.

Dispute settlement

“• The primary feature that distinguishes the WTO from most other international organizations is the fact that the commitments contained in its agreements are enforceable. Putting into place binding dispute settlement accepted as legitimate by all litigants is essential to restore enforceability.

“There being no Appellate Body (AB) at present, major litigants, including the U.S. and the EU, have used a procedural trick to prevent a dispute settlement panel finding from becoming final. This is informally known as “appealing into the void”. Proceedings are paused indefinitely while the losing party at the panel stage appeals to a body that does not exist except on paper.

“The blocking of appointments is the sole result of one Member, the United States, being dissatisfied with what the Appellate Body was doing and not doing, mostly rendering trade remedies less effective and in some instances totally ineffective. While killing off the Appellate Body was largely a matter of one Member acting against the will of 163 others, there has been a growing recognition that only a serious negotiation is going to resolve the matter. Importantly, an increasing number of Members now concede that the former system had serious imperfections, so that change is necessary.

“There is a far wider and deeper importance to the dispute settlement issue than correcting quasi-judicial overreach, or under-performance. The premise on which the United States entered into its agreements liberalizing trade was that industries and workers suffering harm from facing a more open domestic market or from unfair foreign competition would have a remedy within agreed limits. The erosion of trade remedies — their increasing unavailability and increasing ineffectiveness when available — caused a fundamental imbalance as compared with the deal that the United States thought that it had negotiated. In part it is due to this imbalance that a belief has grown in some quarters that the WTO serves capital rather than labor.

“It is the widely held view in the United States, in the Senate, House and Executive Branch, that the Appellate Body sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Domestic experience in the United States with its own Supreme Court is instructive. The Court itself becomes threatened if it becomes politically tone-deaf. This occurred with respect to
New Deal legislation during the 1930s, and it was, observers feel, threatened again during more recent times with the attempted judicial repeal of Obamacare. In the United States, the constitutional system has checks and balances preventing a rule by judges (gouvernance des juges as the problem was known when it was a central cause of the French revolution). In the WTO, there has been neither a legislative nor an executive function available to review and change any outcomes that emerged from the Appellate Body. Kritarchy, rule by judges, is a form or governance that is unsustainable, and that is what occurred, at least with respect to trade remedies. This is unsupportable for an organization consisting of Members prizing sovereignty over their own trade.

“The solution to the WTO dispute settlement problem lies in creating accountability to the Members. This should not take a form that interferes with the independence of its decision-making nor the binding nature of decisions. I support, as do almost all and perhaps ultimately all Members, a binding, independent, two-tier (panel and appellate stage) WTO dispute settlement system. As it may be impossible to create a relevant legislative function which would provide systemic checks and balances, much of the cure of necessity will have to lie in how a new Appellate Body (NAB) is structured.

“The European Union created a multiparty interim arrangement (MPIA). Although not a complete solution in itself, it can provide some ideas for moving forward with changes in the structure of the appellate body and how it functions. The process conducted by then Dispute Settlement Body Chair Ambassador David Walker also yielded elements of a
potential solution. The following suggestions could be considered:

“• Expand the number of Appellate Body members. The EU suggested a roster of 10 for its MPIA (only three serving on any one case) but this number could be expanded to provide greater diversity of representation both in terms of geography and skill sets — including relevant trade remedy experience, as antidumping and subsidies are complex matters.

“• Provide explicitly for a role of the WTO secretariat to seek to narrow differences and make the process more about settling a particular dispute than on seeking to make law.

“• Seek to uphold the primary importance of trade agreements by directing appellate panels to look at negotiating history to discern the intent of the parties.

“• Have strict time limits for appellate review to discourage a de novo examination of the issues at hand.

“• Place emphasis on streamlining written presentations as well as limits on length of decisions to focus on the essential elements needed to settle a dispute.

“• The rules should provide that only issues raised by the parties can be addressed on review.

“• Where the WTO agreements do not cover a specific issue, the matter should be referred to the Members to resolve through rulemaking.

“• Double down on the emphasis that the appellate review is not to expand obligations or limit rights and is to give due deference to domestic decision making where trade remedies are the subject of review.

“• The appellate body should not act as a collegial body on particular cases — appellate panels should be independent of each other.

“• It is necessary to try to provide a suitable oversight role for the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) which is currently no more than a rubber stamp for appellate decisions.

“Another major problem with WTO dispute settlement is that it takes far too long to get to a result, often taking several years. This is unacceptable in the eyes of ministers of WTO Member countries bringing a case and industries seeking to benefit from it. Strict time limits must be adhered to. Justice delayed can easily become justice denied.

“As for process, I would suggest that the trilateral partners, the EU, the U.S, and Japan, begin working on a solution. The three are used to working with each other. The EU and the U.S. have been the furthest apart on the AB issue, with Japan somewhat in the middle. In parallel, a small working group of friends of the DSB chair or General Council chair, could be constituted to consider ways forward. The trilateral would feed suggestions into the working group, and both could report to the Membership as a whole in the DSB. At this stage a meeting of the whole membership in the name of inclusiveness, would not be productive. Inclusion in a null result is not meaningful inclusion.”

As Mr. Wolff’s paper correctly notes, there have not been effective checks and balance on the Appellate Body which is not supportable over time as it results in obligations not from negotiations but from decisions of the Appellate Body. His suggestions address a number of concerns raised by the U.S., including overreach problems through clarifying what expanding rights and obligations means (e.g., no gap filling), providing deference to administering authorities in trade remedy cases (giving meaning to ADA Art. 17.6(ii), limit issues reviewed to those raised by parties, strict time limits, etc.

Missing from Mr. Wolff’s analysis is the concern raised by the Trump Administration that because economies such as the Chinese economy don’t conform to market-economy principles, the current dispute settlement system doesn’t permit addressing distortions created by such economic systems and permits such economies to block efforts to address such distortions by trading partners under their domestic law. Mr. Wolff while serving as a Deputy Director-General at the WTO reviewed his belief that the WTO system was premised on convergence of economic systems versus the coexistence of different economic systems. He repeated that view during the virtual event on April 29th and in his paper but noted that a number of WTO Members do not support that view. In a consensus based system, those opposed to convergence can block clarification of the need to converge. Mr. Wolff’s paper doesn’t review whether dispute settlement reform can occur without solving that underlying issue (either through achieving convergence or by adopting new rules to achieve more acceptable balance). Indeed, his paper suggests that “Part of the answer to distrust in the area of trade will be putting into place more effective and timely dispute settlement as a means for trade agreement enforcement.” (page 22)

Also missing from Mr. Wolff’s analysis is the need to curb review of factual findings of panels by the Appellate Body (the DSU Article 11 issue) and the need to address rebalancing of rights and obligations to correct for past overreach situations.

Conclusion

Mr. Wolff’s paper and presentation correctly claim that the WTO must be more engaged and respond to the existing challenges through action. While acknowledging the mistrust and problems with the current structure and operation of the WTO, his remarks present a vision of a better functioning global trade system that responds to the needs of its Members, is capable of addressing a changing world through improved transparency, cooperation, updated rules, a revised dispute settlement system and a Secretariat that is able to present ideas for action, independently monitor compliance and more.

For skeptics, it will be easy to point to not only mistrust, but vastly different perspectives by Members on the role of the WTO and the focus of future activities, the current consensus system and its use by many to thwart movement, and the increased activity of Members outside of the WTO to support the view that Mr. Wolff’s vision, however interesting, has no chance of succeeding.

Mr. Wolff quotes President Theodore Roosevelt in his paper (page 5), a quote that he would undoubtedly put forward in response to the skeptics and to urge WTO Members to recommit to the effort.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust
and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Recent G7 Trade Ministers Meeting — WTO issues of interest

The United Kingdom has the presidency of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United States and United Kingdom, with European Union as a guest) in 2021. On March 31, trade ministers had a virtual meeting which included WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. On the U.K. G7 web page, the objectives of the Trade Track of the G7 during the UK Presidency is reviewed. See G7 Trade Ministers, https://www.g7uk.org/trade-ministers/

“The UK’s 2021 G7 Presidency will feature a dedicated Trade Track at the G7 for the first time, led by the Department for International Trade. The Trade Track will be an opportunity for the UK to work with our G7 partners to shape a bold global vision for economic recovery that sees us build back better together – greener, more prosperous, resilient, and fair. 

“To do so, the Trade Track will focus on four priority areas:

“- WTO reform

“- trade and health

“- digital trade

“- trade and climate policy”

The Chair of the G7 Trade Track released a statement on March 31. The Chair in 2021 is the U.K. Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities, the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP. See G7 Trade Ministers’ Meeting – Chair’s Statement, https://www.g7uk.org/g7-trade-ministers-meeting-chairs-statement/. The statement is copied below.

G7 Trade Ministers’ Meeting – Chair’s Statement – G7 UK Presidency 2021

“Today, the G7 Trade Ministers held their first meeting under the inaugural G7 Trade Track. Trade Ministers underlined the vital role global trade has played in tackling the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, welcomed the contribution trade can make to a strong economic recovery, and emphasised the need to build back better. They reaffirmed the importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system and welcomed Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new WTO Director-General, to their meeting.

“The G7 Trade Track has a bold purpose – to make the case globally for free and fair trade. G7 Trade Ministers are convinced that when the world’s leading democratic trading nations unite behind a shared agenda to make the global trading system fairer, more sustainable, and responsive to the needs of our citizens, this is an agenda that partners across the world will be ready to share in and help shape.

“Free and Fair Trade

“G7 Trade Ministers support a global trading system that is free and fair and works for all countries and peoples. This year represents a clear inflection point for the world and the global economic architecture. G7 Trade Ministers recognised the importance of providing the leadership needed to respond to the challenges faced by the multilateral trading system. Trade Ministers expressed their determination to provide the sustained effort and momentum necessary to ensure progress is made in the reform of the WTO to help secure shared prosperity for all. Therefore, G7 Trade Ministers will use this year’s G7 to advance the agenda of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference and provide vital political momentum to the WTO reform debate. Trade Ministers will explore reforms that can enhance the WTO as a forum for negotiations, recognising the positive role that the plurilateral initiatives have played in engaging a broad spectrum of WTO members. G7 Trade Ministers also acknowledge that important work on transparency, special and differential treatment, and dispute settlement needs to be undertaken in the WTO.

“The multilateral trading system can be a force for good. It has increased competition and economic growth, helped raise living standards, and lifted millions out of poverty. It must serve the needs of all its members and provide the basis for free and fair trade. G7 Trade Ministers recognised that global trade should work for democratic and open-market systems and that these should not be undermined by unfair trade.

“Yet, not all of our citizens have felt the benefits of trade. Moreover, practices that distort markets and competition lead to decreased efficiency and reduced perceptions of fairness and trust in the system. Echoing the G7 Leaders’ Statement at Charlevoix in 2018, G7 Trade Ministers recalled the importance of fostering a truly level playing field. Trade Ministers will discuss the impact market-distorting practices, such as harmful industrial subsidies, including those causing excess capacity in some sectors, are having on our economies and chart a way to address these collectively.

“Modernising Trade

“G7 Trade Ministers believe that the multilateral trading system is in need of reform to reflect changes in the global economy and environment. As the world transitions to net zero, Trade Ministers acknowledged the risk of carbon leakage to the environment and the potential ways of mitigating this. Acknowledging the role of trade in tackling the accelerating climate and biodiversity crisis, Trade Ministers recognised that 2021 will be a crucial year to drive international efforts to address climate change and protect nature, including at the UNFCCC COP26. Trade Ministers will therefore deepen discussions on the nexus between trade and climate and the environment with a focus on identifying opportunities for collaboration and facilitating sustainable supply chains. Additionally, G7 members are committed to reaching a meaningful conclusion in the WTO negotiations of fisheries subsidies – which have a clear impact on sustainability.

“Stressing that trade has to be at the service of citizens, G7 Trade Ministers underlined the importance of advancing women’s economic empowerment through trade, particularly to support the Covid-19 recovery. They shared the view that greater representation of women in trade as leaders, business owners, and fairly compensated workers will ultimately deliver more and better jobs and more growth in our economies. G7 Members will promote deepened studies and more cross-cutting analyses on trade policy and gender equality by international organisations, such as SheTrades Outlook. Recognising the progress that is being made on trade and gender equality at the WTO, Trade Ministers intend to use their next discussions to explore new opportunities to improve the evidence base to support women in trade and discuss their priorities in this area for the next WTO Ministerial Conference.

“G7 Trade Ministers also agreed to further consider the ways in which trade policy can develop to support trade in health products, and increased supply chain resilience, as we work to build back better from Covid-19. The scale and pace of the spread of the virus, and an uneven global recovery, are challenging all our economies. G7 Members also encourage cooperation among governments, manufacturers, and other industry players to identify policies which support ramped-up production and distribution of vaccines.

“Digital Trade

“G7 Trade Ministers recognised the importance of digital trade to growth, innovation, productivity, and prosperity. They recalled the immense opportunities that it offers to our people and our businesses, and they underlined the central role that it can play in the economic recovery from the pandemic. G7 Members are united in their support for open digital markets and their opposition to digital protectionism. As a group of market-based economies governed by the rule of law, they believe that digital markets should be competitive, transparent, and accessible to international trade and investment. They agree on the importance of data free flow with trust, safeguards for consumers and businesses, and digital trading systems that allow goods and services to move seamlessly across borders. G7 Trade Ministers resolve to promote digital trade worldwide and to pursue global governance that is fair and inclusive. They agreed to further develop a set of high-level principles during this Presidency that will guide the G7 approach to digital trade.

“Digital trade remains an important area for the creation of new rules at the WTO. The rules governing digital trade should be responsive to innovation and emerging technologies, so that businesses, consumers, and workers can harness their full potential. G7 Trade Ministers committed to redoubling their efforts to advance the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce at the World Trade Organization. They aim to achieve substantial progress by the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.

“G7 Trade Ministers look forward to strengthening their dialogue and further advancing a shared agenda at their next meeting in May.”

The statement from the Chair was not surprising considering the composition of the G7 and the focus of the members on getting the pandemic under control, reviving economic and trade activities (“building back better), restoring relevance to the WTO by achieving positive developments at the 12th Ministerial Conference and pursuing WTO reform on a host of areas including updating rules to address distortions (e.g., industrial subsidies) not adequately addressed in current agreements, operation of special and differential treatment, transparency, and dispute settlement. Most G7 members also support the Joint Statement Initiatives on a range of topics, including digital trade, domestic services regulation, SMSEs, empowerment of women in trade and gender equality, and trade’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

While some G7 members have different views on specific issues, the opening G7 trade ministers meeting lays out a positive broad-based agenda for having trade help get the world through the pandemic, return to greater prosperity, and address longstanding challenges at the WTO both to relevance in the 21st century and to different economic systems rendering current rules only partially relevant.

Statements by several of the trade ministers who participated add some individual country focus. For example, USTR Amb. Katherine Tai participated in the meeting. A press release from USTR dated March 31 identifies the U.S. views. See USTR, Statement from USTR Spokesman Adam Hodge on Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Participation in the First G7 Trade Ministers Meeting, 03/31/2021, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2021/march/statement-ustr-spokesman-adam-hodge-ambassador-katherine-tais-participation-first-g7-trade-ministers

“WASHINGTON – United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today virtually participated in the G7 Trade
Ministers Meeting hosted by the United Kingdom and chaired by Secretary of State Liz Truss. Ministers were joined in
this meeting by WTO Director General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This was the first meeting of the G7 Trade Ministers.
Ambassador Tai and other G7 Ministers discussed the challenges facing the global trading system from non-market
forces and the need to work collectively to advance free and fair trade. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and the Ministers discussed
pathways to achieving meaningful outcomes for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference scheduled later this year.
Ministers also discussed their plans for future work on digital trade, women’s economic empowerment, and climate
change objectives. Ambassador Tai emphasized the Biden-Harris Administration’s objective to ensure that trade policy
focuses on benefitting workers, in addition to businesses and consumers. The Ministers are united in their desire to
support policies that will facilitate a rapid end to the pandemic and recognize that trade can contribute to a strong and
equitable recovery.”

Similarly, Canadian Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade Mary Ng participated in the G7 trade ministers meeting. The following press release was issued on March 31 by the Canadian government. See Government of Canada, Minister Ng participates in first G7 trade and investment ministers’ meeting, March 31, 2021, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2021/03/minister-ng-participates-in-first-g7-trade-and-investment-ministers-meeting.html

“As the Government of Canada continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic, collaborating with international partners is essential to fighting the virus and ensuring a sustainable and inclusive global economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Today, the Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, participated in the first G7 trade and investment ministers’ meeting, which was hosted by the United Kingdom under its G7 presidency for 2021. The ministers agreed to pursue an ambitious G7 trade and investment agenda that responds to the challenges posed by the pandemic and to support an inclusive and sustainable recovery with the WTO at its core.

“Minister Ng welcomed the discussion with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new WTO director general, on the future of the WTO. The G7 ministers agreed to work together to advance concrete outcomes in advance of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in November.

“Pursuing trade and investment policies that support women and Indigenous and racialized communities is key to ensuring Canada’s economic recovery from COVID-19 is inclusive and meaningful. During a session on women’s economic empowerment, Minister Ng highlighted initiatives that Canada has undertaken to support women’s success in international trade. The Minister encouraged G7 members to participate in the implementation of the WTO trade and gender initiative and, as a specific example, encouraged member countries to use the SheTrades Outlook, an interactive policy tool that helps governments put in place policies to improve women’s participation in international trade.

“During the meeting, Minister Ng also emphasized the importance of digital trade and highlighted Canada’s work on a number of initiatives, such as the ongoing WTO negotiations on e-commerce.

“Minister Ng reiterated Canada’s support for the United Kingdom-led G7 work plan to enhance the capacity of the trading system to respond to public health emergencies. Ministers discussed the Ottawa Group’s Trade and Health Initiative, which seeks to strengthen the resilience of global supply chains and facilitate trade in essential medical supplies and vaccines.

“The trade ministers acknowledged the impacts of unfair trade practices on their economies and agreed to work together to address them. Recognizing the important role that trade has in tackling climate change and ensuring a sustainable environment, the ministers agreed to continue their efforts to take action on climate change through initiatives such as the WTO trade and environment sustainability initiative.”

The Canadian press release also provided a quote from Minister Ng:

“’Canada continues to work closely with our international partners to support Canadian businesses, workers and communities as we fight the pandemic and support an inclusive, sustainable economic recovery through rules-based international trade that works for everyone. We will make sure that the interests of Canadians across the country are at the forefront of our discussions as we work toward ensuring a strong, sustainable, and inclusive economic recovery.’

“- Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade”

The press reported reactions within China to the G7 trade ministers meeting with a focus on G7 concerns with addressing reforms to industrial subsidies. See, e.g., South China Morning Post, G7 pressure on China over subsidies ‘doomed to fail’ even as Biden administration gathers coalition, 1 April 2021, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3128006/g7-pressure-china-over-subsidies-doomed-fail-even-biden (“Trade ministers from the Group of 7 (G7) – the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and Japan – on Wednesday pledged collective action against ‘harmful industrial subsidies’ without naming China directly. China responded by saying it ‘won’t accept any accusation’ of its trade practice as it ‘has always honoured its commitments since it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the end of 2001.”).

Conclusion

The G7 is a potentially important grouping, particularly to articulate a vision for the future of the multilateral trading system. While the changes in global trade over the last quarter of a century ensure more voices need to be considered than those in the G7 (or those aligned with them), there is no forward movement without them.

The WTO, if a static organization, will continue its slide into irrelevance. The organization suffers a myriad of structural problems which have reduced the effectiveness of all of its core functions. There is a lack of common purpose among the WTO Members. Its rules reflect the world of the 1980s with no significant update in the rules since then.

The pressing global challenges flowing from the pandemic, from climate change and changing technology need a World Trade Organization that is up to date, nimble and driven by an agreed vision to promote sustainable development and greater equitable participation and benefits.

The initial articulation of G7 objectives from trade ministers is a step in the right direction. Time will tell whether the G7 can internally agree on the details of a trade agenda, can translate that into support among a large group of WTO Members and lead to meaningful agreements and reform. The opposition to meaningful reform from China and others within the WTO and the consensus principle of decision making renders it highly unlikely that the WTO will prove up to the needs of the moment. But efforts of the G7 and other groups is critical if a global trading system is to survive. One can only hope for success from the G7 efforts.

Katherine Tai, USTR designate, on addressing WTO reform including dispute settlement if confirmed; the USTR 2021 Trade Policy Agenda

President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative had a hearing on her nomination before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, February 25, 2021. Written questions to the nominee were due to the Chairman of the Committee on February 26 by 5:00 p.m. Questions with answers were returned to the Committee by the USTR nominee on March 1. Ms. Tai will be one of three nominees who will be voted on by the Senate Finance Committee on March 3 at 10:00 a.m. See Reuters, Senate panel to vote Wednesday on three Biden nominees, including trade pick Tai, March 1 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-nominations/senate-panel-to-vote-wednesday-on-three-biden-nominees-including-trade-pick-tai-idUSKCN2AT3K4?il=0; Inside U.S. Trade’s World Trade Online, Finance Committee to vote on Tai’s nomination on Wednesday, March 1, 2021, https://insidetrade.com/trade/finance-committee-vote-tai%E2%80%99s-nomination-wednesday (includes link to answers to questions from Senate Finance Committee by the nominee).

It is expected that Ms. Tai will receive an affirmative vote and be referred to the full Senate for a confirmation vote in the near future. It is expected that she will be confirmed by the Senate in the coming days.

I had reviewed the February 25th hearing in an earlier post. See February 25, 2021, U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2021/02/25/u-s-trade-representative-nominee-katherine-tai-confirmation-hearing-before-the-u-s-senate-finance-committee/. The 95-page compilation of questions for the record and Ms. Tai’s answers contains a little more explanation of her view of the approach of the Biden team on trade issues of importance to the WTO membership. Yesterday was also the day that USTR released the 2021 Trade Policy Agenda and 2020 Annual Report of the President of the United States on the Trade Agreements Program.

While the bulk of questions to Ms. Tai were on the U.S.-China relationship and a wide array of issues flowing from various Chinese practices, there were also a number of questions going to WTO reform and, in particular, on dispute settlement and the Appellate Body. There were also a series of questions on the U.S.-EU WTO disputes on Airbus/Boeing. There were also questions about U.S. actions that are subject to WTO dispute (though the questions didn’t focus on the WTO disputes) — Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum; Section 301 tariffs on large parts of imports from China. There were questions on the Environmental Goods Agreement negotiations which stopped in 2016 and whether plurilateral negotiations should be on a non-MFN basis. There were also several questions about the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and U.S. notification of its intent to withdraw coverage from certain medical goods. In addition most of the topics raised in the hearing were covered by specific written questions (e.g., USMCA enforcement, US-EU issues on digital services taxes, negotiations with the U.K., Kenya, CPTPP countries, market access issues with countries like India, Japan and others).

On WTO reform and problems with the WTO dispute settlement system, Ms. Tai’s responses indicate that the Biden Administration will be actively engaged in search for reforms. This is the first affirmative indication that the Biden Administration is likely to move past identifying the myriad problems with the dispute settlement system (something the Trump team identified with great specificity) to engaging in identifying reforms needed. Similarly, Ms. Tai’s response on the WTO disputes on Airbus-Boeing indicates the Biden Administration will be focusing on finding a negotiated solution with the European Union. Similarly, the Biden Administration will focus on enforcement of existing obligations our trading partners have at the WTO or bilaterally or plurilaterally. With China this means the U.S. will seek compliance through the WTO or through bilateral agreements (such as the U.S.-China Phase I Agreement) where there are specific commitments not being complied with, and the U.S. will seek through negotiations new rules where there is a lack of clarity in current agreements or lack of existing rules.

The 2021 Trade Policy Agenda looks at how trade policy can address core Biden Administration priorities — tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and restoring the economy; being worker centric; putting the world on a sustainable environment and climate path; advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities; addressing China’s coercive and unfair economic trade practices through a comprehensive strategy; partnering with friends and allies; standing up for American farmers, ranchers, food manufacturers and fishers; promoting equitable economic growth around the world; and making the rules count (enforcement). While many of the Administration’s priorities from a trade perspective include areas for potential WTO action, the main discussion of WTO activity is in the partnering with friends and allies section. A three page fact sheet from USTR released yesterday provides a summary on the 2021 trade policy agenda and is embedded below.

fact-sheet-on-2021-Trade-Policy-Agenda-report

Senate Finance Committee Questions and Ms. Tai’s Responses dealing directly with the WTO or the US-EU Airbus-Boeing disputes

I have copied below the questions and responses that deal directly with the WTO or the US-EU Airbus-Boeing disputes. I include the name of the Senator asking the question. Italics (questions) and bold (name of Senator and answers of Ms. Tai) in the materials is from the original text.

Chairman Wyden

“Question 2 – Boeing/Airbus Dispute:

“As a longtime trade professional, you’re well aware of the history of the Boeing/Airbus dispute, a case that has spanned well over a decade. At the end of the WTO process, American businesses continue to be in an untenable position. The Europeans are continuing to subsidize Airbus to the detriment of U.S. competitors, while small American businesses—already suffering from COVID-related challenges—are facing extra tariffs on a variety of European products.

“The Boeing/Airbus dispute is just one “trade irritant” between the United States and Europe. There are numerous others—including digital services taxes, biotech authorization processes that aren’t based on science, and protectionist policies in standards development.

What’s going to change under the Biden Administration – and a USTR Tai – to ensure that Washington and Brussels can bring this dispute to a meaningful and timely conclusion? And ultimately, what would a positive outcome look like?

Answer: The Boeing/Airbus WTO litigation has been ongoing for more than 15 years. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field.

“Question 3 – WTO Reform:

“It was not always clear that the previous administration saw the value in the WTO. In contrast, the Biden Administration has pledged to work with our allies and re-engage in multilateral institutions like the WTO.

“That said, there has been bipartisan agreement that the WTO is in need of reform. There are numerous issues with the institution—from the lack of meaningful negotiations, to failure to comply with notification and transparency requirements, to ongoing concerns regarding the Appellate Body.

Where do you recommend the United States start in restoring the WTO to a functioning and useful institution?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work to re-engage with like-minded partners who similarly recognize the importance and necessity of WTO reform. Since the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, U.S. leadership has been critical at every juncture when the global trade system has required a major update. This will be difficult work that may take some time, but I remain hopeful that with proper U.S. leadership, we can achieve the necessary reforms.

How can the United States support the incoming Director General, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, in building consensus and ultimately ensuring that the WTO makes the needed reforms?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work closely with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, following her own historic appointment, to tackle these challenges in a practical and constructive manner. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge from her 25 years of experience at the World Bank and her two terms as Nigeria’s Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her leadership and management skills. The U.S. stands ready to assist her in building the consensus required to achieve the much-needed reforms.

Ranking Member Crapo

“Question 4:

“I have concerns about the power of technology companies. However, I am concerned that the EU is using such concerns as fig-leaf for discriminatory measures against U.S. businesses, including unreasonable digital services taxes or through measures that appear to target American companies in particular, like the Digital Services Act.

Are you willing to aggressively challenge these types of measures whether through use of Section 301 or through WTO dispute settlement?

Answer: The previous Administration started Section 301 investigations in response to the digital service taxes introduced by a number of countries, but it then suspended the introduction or implementation of specific remedies to allow time for negotiations. If confirmed, I will review the status of those actions and will work with my colleagues at the Treasury Department to address digital services taxes as part of the multilateral effort to address base erosion and profit shifting through the OECD/G20 process.

“Question 10:

“WTO reform is of great interest to many Members of this Committee. In particular, there are bipartisan concerns about overreach by the WTO Appellate Body. While I see some utility in second-level review, we need to ensure reforms that stop activism by the Appellate Body, including through rulings that have undercut our trade remedy laws and environmental conservation measures.

What are some concrete reforms that you think are necessary to ensure the Appellate Body operates as intended?

Answer: Over the years, the Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members. In addition, the Appellate Body has failed to follow existing rules created to ensure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner. Reforms are needed to ensure that the underlying causes of such problems do not resurface and that the Appellate Body does not diminish the rights and obligations of WTO members.

“Question 12:

“I am deeply concerned about data localization requirements. The European Union attempts to be invoking privacy concerns in the WTO E-commerce negotiations as an excuse to allow it to engage in protectionist practices with respect to data.

Do you agree that that United States should not accept the EU’s proposed exception to allow countries to engage in data localization?

Answer: To participate in today’s global economy, U.S. companies need the ability to access networks, transfer data and use secure data centers of their choice. If confirmed, I commit to using the tools at my disposal to ensure that American workers and innovators are able to compete effectively abroad.

Senator Grassley

“Question 1:

If confirmed, how will you use the tremendous leverage the United States has to revitalize the WTO’s negotiating function so that the rules reflect the modern economy, including e-commerce?

Answer: The WTO negotiating function has failed to keep pace with changes in the global economy. WTO rules need to be updated to reflect developments that have unfolded over the past quarter-century, particularly in the digital economy. If confirmed, I commit to work with like-minded partners to ensure that any new rules are high-standard ones that reflect the Build Back Better agenda.

What reforms would the Biden Administration be interested in pursuing to WTO’s Appellate Body?

Answer: Over the years, the Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members. In addition, the Appellate Body has failed to follow existing rules created to ensure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner. If confirmed, I commit to seeking a comprehensive range of reforms to address these shortcomings.

Do you think China should be accorded developing country status at the WTO?

Answer: If the WTO is going to succeed in promoting equitable economic development, it is critical that the institution rethink the ability of countries to self-select developing country status. The rules for special and differential treatment should be reserved for those countries whose development indicators and global competitiveness actually warrant such flexibilities; they should not be abused by countries that are already major trading powers.

“Question 7:

“The European Union is in the process of implementing legislation that will impose new EU antibiotic use restrictions on producers of animal products that export to the EU, a move that could cause serious disruptions. EU regulators are refusing to take into account relevant data from countries outside the EU or to consider use restrictions already in place in the U.S. and elsewhere, as required under WTO rules.

How do you intend to deal with this type of EU regulatory protectionism?

“Answer: I understand the importance of this issue. If confirmed, I commit to holding our trading partners to their WTO commitments with respect to sanitary and phytosanitary measures, the application of standards and other obligations that impact our agricultural exporters.

Senator Cantwell

“Question 4 – Boeing-Airbus Dispute/Europe:

“Aerospace has been a leading U.S. export for many years. The future of aerospace matters to U.S. jobs. There are more than 100,000 aerospace jobs in Washington state and before the pandemic there were even more.

“In 2006, the United States brought a case at the World Trade Organization (WTO) because Europe provided $22 billion in illegal subsidies for the development of Airbus commercial aircraft (A350 and A380).

“The Europeans countered with a case against the United States. The WTO ruled for the United States in 2012 and 2016 and for the EU in 2019. As a result of the WTO cases, the United States imposed WTO-approved tariffs of up to 25% on a range of products including European aircraft, wine and spirits, and dairy. The European Union still imposed tariffs of up to 25% on U.S. aircraft and a range of agricultural products including Pacific salmon, wine, wheat, and berries.

“The EU has kept sanctions in place even though in March 2020 Washington State repealed the tax provision that the WTO found to be out of compliance. Last year, the Trump administration failed to reach an agreement with the Europeans on commercial aircraft subsidies that would finally end the dispute and the tariffs.

“As it seeks to rebuild the transatlantic alliance, the Biden administration has a real opportunity to resolve this dispute, finally end harmful Airbus subsidies, and establish a level playing field for America’s aerospace industry.

Will you prioritize reaching an agreement on commercial aircraft subsidies to end European and U.S. tariffs and finally end the Boeing Airbus dispute?

Answer: The Boeing/Airbus WTO litigation has been ongoing for more than 15 years. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field.

Do you anticipate reaching separate agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union?

Answer: The United Kingdom left the European Union on January 31, 2020. If confirmed, I look forward to working with the United Kingdom on a range of trade issues, including the disputes regarding Boeing and Airbus.

Will you commit to resolving the Boeing-Airbus dispute and tariffs prior to finalizing any U.S. – EU Trade Agreement or U.S. – United Kingdom Trade Agreement?

Answer: If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field. I commit to working with Members of Congress on trade priorities with the European Union and the United Kingdom.

“Question 5 – Digital Trade/Europe:

* * *

What steps will you take to cooperate with Europe on addressing intellectual property and market access challenges in China?

Answer: While there are differences between the U.S. and the EU on some important issues, the U.S. and the EU share broad concerns about China’s unfair practices, including policies that in practice condition market access on technology transfer. It is a priority of the Biden Administration to work with our allies, including our European allies, to address the many challenges posed by China.

Will you re-engage on the WTO negotiations on e-commerce and will you make it a priority?

Answer: The WTO negotiating function has failed to keep pace with changes in the global economy. WTO rules need to be updated to reflect developments that have unfolded over the past quarter-century, particularly in the digital economy. If confirmed, I commit to work with like-minded partners to ensure that any new rules reflect the values of the Build Back Better agenda.

“Question 6 – Environmental Goods:

“Climate Change is a global challenge that no nation can solve on their own. For this reason, I appreciate President Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement so the U.S. can resume its role as a leader in reducing the world’s dangerous levels of carbon pollution.
Being part of the global solution on climate will also help ensure the U.S. has access to a rapidly growing trillion-dollar annual market that could create thousands of high-wage trade and manufacturing jobs in Washington state.

“But that market opportunity is currently constrained by a variety of tariffs that make environmental goods and services more expensive and less accessible then they should be, especially in the developing world where most future carbon pollution will come from.

“That’s why I think it’s imperative that we work to make it easier for all countries to adopt lower carbon technologies. Examples include goods and services that address air pollution control, renewable energy, water and waste management, environmental monitoring, and carbon capture and storage technologies.

“Ideally with America being the ones manufacturing and selling those technologies to the rest of the world.

“In 2001, the Doha Ministerial Declaration directed WTO members to negotiate the elimination of tariffs on environmental goods. In 2014 the U.S. and its global trading partners began negotiations on an Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) under the WTO with the goal of eliminating tariffs on environmental products and services. That was a big deal, because the 46 WTO members negotiating that Agreement account for 90% of environmental goods traded worldwide. Unfortunately, discussions stalled in 2016 and were not pursued by the last Administration.

Ms. Tai, do you support the goals of the Environmental Goods Agreement?

Answer: Combatting climate change and developing green enterprises and jobs are key priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration. In July 2014, the United States and 13 additional Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) officially launched negotiations on the proposed Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) to eliminate tariffs on green technologies. If confirmed, I will pursue a trade agenda that supports the Biden Administration’s comprehensive vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving net-zero global emissions by 2050, or before, by fostering U.S. innovation and production of climate-related technology and promoting resilient renewable energy supply chains.

As U.S. Trade Representative, will you seek to restart negotiations on this vital pact that could make the products we need to combat climate change cheaper and more accessible worldwide?

Answer: If confirmed, I will seek stakeholder input on the EGA and evaluate the agreement for its consistency with the Build Back Better agenda and its potential contribution to the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of achieving net-zero global emissions by 2050.

Will you commit to looking into existing tariff levels with other WTO members to determine which countries have tariffs on environmental goods that differ or exceed corresponding US tariffs? And will you share that analysis with the members of this Committee?

Answer: If confirmed, I commit to working closely with you to identify barriers to reciprocal market access for U.S. producers of environmental goods.

Senator Cornyn

“Question 1:

“Since June 2018, certain American spirits exports to the EU and UK have faced a 25% tariff in response to the U.S. imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and in connection with the WTO dispute concerning Boeing. Absent a resolution to the steel tariffs, the EU’s tariff on American Whiskey will automatically double to 50% in June. The U.S. has imposed a 25% tariff on certain EU and UK wines and spirits imports since October 2019 in connection with the WTO Airbus dispute. The negative impact of these tariffs are being felt across the U.S. from farmers, to suppliers, retailers, and the hospitality sector.

Will you commit to taking these views into account?

What is the Administration’s plan to negotiate resolutions to the various trade disputes with the EU and UK to ensure that these tariffs are quickly removed?

Answer: The purpose of WTO dispute resolution process is to ensure that other countries play by the rules so that our businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers can compete on a level playing field. Tariffs may be a tool to achieve these ends, but they are not the goal. The Boeing/Airbus WTO litigation has been ongoing for more than 15 years. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field and that takes into account all affected stakeholders.

“Question 8:

“The Biden Administration has announced its intention to increase government procurement of domestically manufactured goods and services. At the same time, the United States is a party to the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), which limits the United States’ ability to apply robust Buy America requirements to government procurement. Some have proposed suspending U.S. obligations under the GPA on a temporary, emergency basis to shore up critical domestic supply chains and spur economic recovery in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

What are your thoughts on such a concept?

Answer: It is the policy of the Biden-Harris Administration that the United States should seek to maximize the use of goods made in the United States for federal procurement and financial assistance awards, consistent with applicable law. If confirmed, I will work to ensure that our trade policy supports this goal.

Should the U.S. renegotiate any of its U.S. GPA commitments to ensure that the Administration can achieve its “Buy America” objectives?

Answer: As a part of its review of the implementation and efficacy of laws, regulations, and policies related to federal procurement, the United States should also examine procurements made under our trade agreement obligations to ensure that they serve the interests of the United States, its businesses and workers. If confirmed, I commit to undertake this review.

“Question 9:

“Both the Obama and Trump Administrations recognized the existence of serious deficiencies in the WTO dispute settlement process. WTO members have used the dispute settlement process to achieve what they could not achieve in negotiations, including the severe weakening of antidumping and countervailing duty laws. In addition, the Appellate Body has repeatedly failed to address China’s dangerous combination of government subsidies, state-owned enterprises and distortive non-market behavior. The United States needs to engage in serious and meaningful negotiations to resolve these issues prior to considering any reestablishment of the Appellate Body.

What are your plans for addressing the serious deficiencies in the WTO’s dispute settlement process?

Do you agree that the Appellate Body should not be revived until these problems are fully addressed?

Answer: If confirmed, I will re-engage like-minded partners who similarly recognize the importance and necessity of reform of the WTO, including its dispute settlement process. This will be difficult work, but I remain hopeful that with proper U.S. leadership, we can achieve the necessary reform that resolves our long-standing, bipartisan concerns.

“Question 10:

“Domestically produced steel is among the cleanest in the world.

How do you plan to ensure that the WTO cannot block or weaken the administration’s efforts to promote and expand markets for domestically produced steel?

Answer: If confirmed, I commit to examining any potential barriers to the expanding the exportation of domestically produced steel, including at the WTO, and working with Congress to address those barriers.

Senator Portman

“Question 3:

“In Choruses from the Rock, T.S. Elliot wrote of creating ‘a system so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ That sentiment might also be applied to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which despite having clear, agreed upon rules has found itself drifting from the obvious meaning of those rules. For systems, or organizations, to be sustainable they need active engagement and not just passive reliance on their underlying institutional architecture. One of the dilemmas facing the WTO reform agenda is the fact that the existing rules are quite clear, and yet the development of new rules may suffer from the same jurisprudential drift as the existing rules have.

Aside from tacking on a clause that says ‘and we mean it’ to a number of provisions in the WTO agreements, how do you believe new rules should be written to avoid the pitfalls that the United States has seen with respect to Appellate Body activism? And what mechanisms, if any, should be created to ensure that those who interpret such agreements remain faithful to the text of the agreement and neither expand or diminish obligations created by the agreement?

Answer: Over the years, the Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and erred in interpreting WTO agreements in a number of cases, to the detriment of the United States and other WTO members. In addition, the Appellate Body has failed to follow existing rules created to ensure that disputes are resolved in a timely manner. Reforms are needed to ensure that the underlying causes of such problems do not resurface and that the Appellate Body does not diminish the rights and obligations of WTO members.

“Question 4:

“The previous two administration have, on a bipartisan basis, blocked appointments to the Appellate Body (AB) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) over concerns about AB activism. Restoring the AB without addressing the underlying issues that sparked U.S. concerns would likely not be a sustainable solution to the problem of AB overreach.

How do you intend to approach issues related to the stalled AB? Do you believe that resuscitating the AB should come with reforms to guard against future overreach? What might some of those reforms be?

Answer: Yes, it is absolutely critical that any solution to the existing impasse be one that seeks to address the underlying problems, including longstanding concerns of overreach and jurisprudential drift. If confirmed, I will seek to work with other countries that share U.S. concerns about WTO dispute settlement to craft reforms to guard against such problems re-emerging in the future.

“Question 5:

“Last summer I introduced a bipartisan resolution, which articulated some proposed reforms to the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of those solutions is to pursue more plurilateral agreements without Most Favored Nation (MFN) requirements. This would allow the United States to pursue trade opening opportunities with like-minded nations while preventing those not party to the agreement from benefiting.

Do you agree about the value of non-MFN plurilaterals? If confirmed, do you intend to explore such arrangements with like-minded countries?

Answer: Given the negotiating challenges that the WTO has encountered in recent years, I agree that non-MFN plurilaterals need to be explored as a possible path forward. If confirmed, I commit to exploring the possibility of such arrangements with like-minded countries. Developing countries are hesitant to accept them, however, and getting these arrangements accepted within the WTO will not be easy.

“Question 21:

“For roughly the past two and a half years, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) have levied a 25 percent tariff on American whiskey imports in response to the United States’ Section 232 tariffs. These tariffs are set to double to 50 percent in June 2021. At the same time, the United States has imposed a 25 percent tariff on certain wine and spirit imports from the EU and UK in connection to the Boeing-Airbus dispute

How do you propose to solve the Boeing-Airbus dispute in order to ensure WTO compliance by the EU, while prioritizing the removal of tariffs on products such as American whiskey subject to 232 retaliation?

Answer: The purpose of WTO dispute resolution process is to ensure that other countries play by the rules so that our businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers can compete on a level playing field. Tariffs may be a tool to achieve these ends, but they are not the goal. The focus must be on the resolution of the issue that has been found to impact our industry and workers. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to review the status of this long-term dispute and seek a resolution that finally addresses the unfair practices found through the WTO process that disadvantage U.S. industry and workers.

“Question 22:

“The United Kingdom (UK) is no longer a member of the European Union. Yet, the UK continues to face Airbus-related tariffs. Since the UK cannot advocate for policy change in Brussels on this issue, and as a gesture of goodwill in the interest of bringing our countries closer together, these tariffs on the UK should be removed.

Do you believe that these tariffs should be removed from the UK?

Answer: The Boeing/Airbus WTO litigation has been ongoing for more than 15 years. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field.

“Question 23:

“Wheels of Jarlsberg cheese are produced in Ireland by a Norwegian company. These wheels are subject to a 25 percent tariff as a result of the Boeing-Airbus dispute. The same company makes loaves of Jarlsberg cheese in Ohio. The tariff on the wheels threatens the entire company and therefore the U.S. production of loaves. The last six-month statutory review of these tariffs did not benefit from public input, therefore did not account for the impacts on Jarlsberg cheese.

When do you plan to review the items that are subject to Boeing-Airbus tariffs, and will you seek public input? How will you decide what stays on the tariff list and what is removed?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work to make sure our trade enforcement actions consider the impact of tariffs on U.S. businesses and workers. When action taken under the Section 301 process leads to the imposition of tariffs on certain imports, USTR requests public input through a notice and comment period. This statutorily required practice will continue if I am confirmed as U.S. Trade Representative.

“Question 31:

“The World Trade Organization’s Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) opens up parts of the U.S. procurement market to other countries. Yet, the GPA is also a uniquely helpful model for bringing like-minded allies together on a plurilateral basis. In this way, the GPA can be both a limiting and empowering factor when it comes to restoring the resiliency of our supply chains.

To what extent do you intend to pursue changes to U.S. GPA commitments as part of the administration’s broader Buy American agenda?

Answer: It is the policy of the Biden-Harris Administration that the United States should seek to maximize the use of goods made in the United States for federal procurement and financial assistance awards, consistent with applicable law. As a part of its review of the implementation and efficacy of laws, regulations, and policies related to federal procurement, the United States should also examine procurements made under our trade agreement obligations to ensure that they serve the interests of the United States, its businesses and workers. If confirmed, I commit to undertaking this review.

“Question 32:

“In May 2020, President Trump signed an Executive Order directing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to identify essential medical countermeasures and require the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to withdraw coverage under U.S. trade agreements for these products. USTR has since notified the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) Committee and our trade agreement partners of the intent to withdraw coverage for these medical countermeasures. This drew objections from some of our trading partners.

Do you intend to pursue this withdrawal of coverage?

Answer: As part of a review of whether our trade agreement obligations serve the interests of the United States, if confirmed, I will review the action taken to withdraw coverage of certain essential medical countermeasures from the Government Procurement Agreement and our trade agreements.

“Question 37:

“In 2018, China began to indulge protectionist impulses with respect to imports of certain waste and scrap paper. Just the other month, China banned imports of recovered paper. As you know, the United States has raised with China the inconsistency of China’s import restrictions on recyclable materials with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. These new restrictions seem to likely to further constitute a violation of those rules.

Will you commit to looking into these new import restrictions on recycled paper, and work with domestic industry who has been affected by these restrictions? Do you see an opportunity to include these import restrictions on paper within the scope of any future negotiations with China?

Answer: If confirmed, I commit to engaging in a review of how trade policy can advance the development of the circular economy. As part of that process, I will engage in close consultations with domestic industry and Congress. Given the importance of China to these discussions at the global level, I would hope that China would be interested in active discussions with the U.S. on this matter.

Senator Brown

“Question 4 – World Trade Organization:

“As was discussed during Thursday’s hearing, many agree that it is past time for World Trade Organization (WTO) reform to ensure that both dispute settlement panels and the Appellate Body are not used as a venue for foreign governments and competitors to subvert the will of Congress and perpetuate unfair trade practices.

If confirmed, how will you approach WTO reform and how will you ensure that U.S. trade laws remain effective and are not weakened as a result of WTO dispute settlement proceedings?

Answer: If confirmed, I will work to re-engage with like-minded partners who similarly recognize the importance and necessity of reform of the WTO. Since the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, U.S. leadership has been critical at every juncture when the global trade system has required a major updating. This will be difficult work that may take some time, but I remain hopeful that with proper U.S. leadership, we can achieve the necessary reforms. This includes reforming WTO dispute settlement to prevent diminishing the rights and obligations of countries to use their trade remedy laws to counteract unfair trade practices.

Senator Bennet

“Question 8:

“The Airbus/Boeing dispute tariffs are significantly affecting the Colorado small businesses. Restaurants in particular, which are already struggling due to the pandemic, are facing substantial costs on European food, wine, and spirits.

If nominated, what will be your first steps regarding the EU Airbus/Boeing dispute?

Answer: If confirmed, I will make it a priority to review the status of these long-term disputes and seek a resolution that finally addresses the unfair practices found through the WTO process that disadvantage U.S. industry and workers.

Will you work with a wide range of interests to understand the tariffs’ impacts on their industries, including restaurants?

Answer: The purpose of the dispute resolution process is to ensure that other countries play by the rules so that our businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers can compete on a level playing field. Tariffs may be a tool to achieve these ends, but they are not the goal. The focus must be on the resolution of the issue that has been found to impact our industry and workers. If confirmed, I will ensure that our trade enforcement actions consider the impact of tariffs on U.S. businesses and workers.

Senator Cassidy

“Question 4 – Sugar – WTO Quota Allocation Methodology:

“There have been indications over the past year or so that USTR and USDA are considering revising the methodology used by the United States to allocate our WTO sugar quota. This quota has traditionally been allocated in varying amounts to 40 countries based on a longstanding formula, with reallocations being carried out later in the fiscal year to account for nonperformance. While it is understood there may be some inefficiencies built into the current methodology, there are also elements to the arrangement that benefit the overall operation of existing sugar policy.

Can you provide your assurance that USTR will engage in thorough consultations with both USDA program managers and industry stakeholders regarding potential changes to the existing allocation process before any such changes are instituted?

Answer: If confirmed, I commit to consulting with USDA program managers and industry stakeholders before any changes to the current allocation process take place.

“Question 5 – Spirits:

“Since June 2018, certain American spirits exports to the EU and UK have faced a 25% tariff in response to the U.S. imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, and in connection with the WTO dispute concerning Boeing. Absent a resolution to the steel tariffs, the EU’s tariff on American Whiskey will automatically double to 50% in June. The U.S. has imposed a 25% tariff on certain EU and UK wines and spirits imports since October 2019 in connection with the WTO Airbus dispute. The negative impact of these tariffs are being felt across the U.S. from farmers, to suppliers, retailers, and the hospitality sector.

What are your thoughts on how this situation can be improved?

Answer: The purpose of the WTO dispute resolution process is to ensure that other countries play by the rules so that our businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers can compete on a level playing field. Tariffs may be a tool to achieve these ends, but they are not the goal. The focus must be on resolving the issue that has harmed has our industry and workers. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to review the status of these long-term disputes and evaluate the use of tariffs, including their impact on unrelated industries, to ensure U.S. trade tools maximize the benefit and minimize the cost for U.S. industries, workers, and consumers.

Senator Daines

“Question 4:

“As you know, many agricultural commodities have been targeted by the European Union with retaliatory tariffs due to disputes over Boeing/Airbus and other issues. In particular, Hard Red Spring wheat has been harmed by WTO sanctioned punitive tariffs on U.S. grown non-durum wheat. Until the Airbus/Boeing dispute is resolved, or the tariffs are lifted in negotiations, U.S. wheat growers will be at a disadvantage in the marketplace relative to competitors in Canada and elsewhere.

What steps can be taken to find a negotiated solution and put the respective tariffs on hold?

Other agriculture commodities have been impacted as well. Will you commit to working to lift these retaliatory tariffs?

Answer: The purpose of WTO dispute resolution process is to ensure that other countries play by the rules so that our businesses, workers, farmers and ranchers can compete on a level playing field. Tariffs may be a tool to achieve these ends, but they are not the goal. The Boeing/Airbus WTO litigation has been ongoing for more than 15 years. If confirmed, I will make it a priority to resolve this long-running dispute in a way that ensures Boeing and its workers can compete on a level playing field and that takes into account all affected stakeholders.

Senator Warren

“Question 1:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been the worst public health crisis facing our nation and the world in over a century. Now that safe and effective vaccines are available, it is vital that all people around the world have access to vaccines and any future treatments for Covid-19. Unfortunately, the Trump administration put the profits of pharmaceutical manufacturers ahead of global public health. Too many people in low- and middle-income countries may have to wait years to get vaccinated because of the high prices being charged for Covid-19 vaccines, and an insufficient supply that is currently being bought up disproportionately by wealthy nations. No one should die because drug company profits are prioritized over the health and wellbeing of human beings.

“Countries that can manufacture pharmaceuticals should be given the opportunity to produce Covid-19 vaccines and treatments as quickly as possible in order to bolster global supplies and ensure equitable distribution. In October, South Africa and India proposed a temporary waiver of the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, to increase the global supply of COVID vaccines and treatments and save lives throughout the world. That proposal is now supported by a large number of low and middle income countries. Under the Trump administration, the United States was one of the wealthy nations working to block this emergency waiver.

Will you as United States Trade Representative reverse the Trump-era decision that is putting lives at risk, and instead support the TRIPS waiver so that Covid-19 vaccines and medications can be made widely available in low and middle-income countries?

Answer: Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is the top priority of the Biden Administration. I recognize the critical importance of ensuring widespread access to life-saving vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, treatments, and other key products worldwide in order to counter the pandemic and enable global economic recovery. If confirmed, I commit to examining the TRIPS waiver proposal thoroughly to determine its efficacy in enhancing our global health security and saving lives.

“Senator Barrasso

“Question 4 – Sugar:

“The current world sugar market is highly dysfunctional, driven by production and trade distorting practices employed by nearly all sugar-producing countries.

“It is more important than ever that the United States maintain its current no-cost sugar policy which provides a stable and predictable economic environment for U.S. producers, an environment necessary for capital investments and long-run sustainability.

“How would you envision taking on a multilateral challenge like the reform of the global sugar market, and

Answer: If confirmed, any reforms I pursue regarding the global sugar market will be consistent with maintaining the current no-cost U.S. sugar policy.

Do you think the World Trade Organization (WTO) is equipped now, or can be made equipped going forward, to effectively address the underlying issues among all members?

Answer: WTO rules need to be updated to reflect long-standing agricultural issues that have not been rectified under the WTO’s current construction. If confirmed, I will work with like-minded partners to ensure that any new rules are consistent with U.S. domestic sugar goals.

The full set of questions and answers is embedded below.

USTR-nominee-answers-to-written-questions

Excerpts from USTR’s 2021 Trade Policy Agenda and 2020 Annual Report of the President of the United States on the Trade Agreements Program

The section of the 2021 Trade Policy Agenda dealing with “partnering with friends and allies” is copied below. However, other priorities correspond with priorities for major trading partners like the EU and with the priorities identified by the WTO’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, including dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery, having trade play a role in addressing climate change, addressing China’s many trade distortive practices and more.

Partnering with Friends and Allies

The Biden Administration will seek to repair partnerships and alliances and restore U.S. leadership around the world. The Biden Administration will reengage and be a leader in international organizations, including the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States will work with Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and like-minded trading partners to implement necessary reforms to the WTO’s substantive rules and procedures to address the challenges facing the global trading system, including growing inequality, digital transformation, and impediments to small business trade. The Biden Administration will also work with allies and like-minded trading partners to establish high-standard global rules to govern the digital economy, in line with our shared democratic values.

“The Biden Administration will also coordinate with friends and allies to pressure the Chinese Government to end its unfair trade practices and to hold China accountable, including for the extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by its state-sanctioned forced labor program. In addition, the trade agenda will seek to collaborate with friends and allies to address global market distortions created by industrial overcapacity in sectors ranging from steel and aluminum to fiber optics, solar, and other sectors to which the Chinese Government has been a key contributor.”

The complete publication from USTR is embedded below.

USTR-2021-trade-policy-agenda-and-2020-annual-report

Conclusion

President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative is likely to be confirmed in the coming days after being voted out of the Senate Finance Committee tomorrow. Her confirmation hearing before the Committee and responses to questions asked cover a very wide array of topics. But a significant number pertain to WTO reform including addressing distortions flowing from China’s state capital system and changing special and differential treatment away from self-selection, addressing the problems of the Appellate Body reviewed by prior Administrations including the overreach problem, working to resolve long running disputes (US-EU on Airbus-Boeing), getting results in the e-commerce/digital trade plurilateral negotiations, addressing the growing conflict over digital services taxes (although likely through the OECD/G20 process) and other issues. Her answers are consistent with the 2021 Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR yesterday and show strong interest in using trade policy to help address the COVID-19 pandemic and restore global economic growth, addressing the existential threat from a warming planet and other Biden Administration priorities. The Biden Administration, and Ms. Tai as the next USTR, will work with trading partners in the WTO to help restore relevance and hopefully create rules for the 21st century. Both the answers to questions and the 2021 Trade Policy Agenda should be good news for our trading partners looking at the future of multilateralism.

USTR on January 14, 2021 released its 2020 report to Congress on China’s WTO compliance

The Office of the United States Trade Representative last Thursday, January 14, 2021, released its 2020 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance. As the report notes, it is the 19th report to Congress following China’s accession to the WTO. It is also the last report prepared under the Trump Administration. The report is significantly shorter than prior Trump Administration reports (70 pages vs. 192 pages for 2019 report, 183 pages for 2018 report, and 161 pages for 2017 report) while referencing details on specific U.S. concerns with China from the 2019 report appendix. The link to the report is as follows: https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/reports/2020/2020USTRReportCongressChinaWTOCompliance.pdf.

The report provides an Executive Summary, a section entitled U.S. ASSESSMENT OF CHINA’S WTO MEMBERSHIP with four subsections (China’s WTO Accession, Expectations of WTO Membership,
China’s Record in Terms of Complying With WTO Rules, and China’s Record in Terms of Transitioning to a Market Economy), a section entitled U.S. STRATEGY FOR ADDRESSING TRADE DISTORTIONS CAUSED BY CHINA, a section entitled REVIEW OF TRADE MECHANISMS USED TO ENGAGE CHINA (with subsections on bilateral dialogues, multilateral fora, and enforcement (both U.S. laws and WTO litigation)) and the final section looking at KEY U.S. CONCERNS (five subsections — non-tariff barriers (24 topics), intellectual property rights (5 topics), agriculture (10 topics), services (16 topics) and transparency (4 topics)).

While the Key U.S. Concerns section provides the detail on U.S. concerns on specific topics on goods and services sectors, the section on U.S. Assessment of China’s WTO’s Membership provides a good overview of the fundamental concerns the U.S. has with the compatibility of China’s economic system with the WTO objective of market driven economic outcomes. The section on U.S. strategy for addressing trade distortions caused by China provides a review of the Trump Administration’s efforts in the 2017-2020 period for addressing concerns with the bilateral relationship and China’s practices. The Executive Summary (pages 2-3) gives a reasonable picture of what the problems with China are and the Trump Administration’s response.

“In prior reports, we provided this Administration’s assessment of China’s WTO membership, the unique and very serious challenges that China’s non-market policies and practices pose for the multilateral trading system and the effectiveness of the strategies that had been pursued to address the China problem over the years. We 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 state-led, mercantilist approach to the economy and trade. We also described the positive outcomes to date of the Administration’s strategy for engaging China, which led to the signing of an historic trade agreement with China in January 2020. In this year’s report, we review and assess China’s progress in implementing that agreement to date, and we highlight the important issues that remain to be addressed in our trade relationship with China.

“As we previously documented, and as remains true today, China’s record of compliance with the terms of its WTO membership has been poor. China has continued to embrace a state-led, non-market and 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. In our prior reports, we identified and explained the numerous policies and practices pursued by China that harm and disadvantage U.S. companies and workers, often severely. It is clear that 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, aluminum, solar and fisheries, devastating markets in the United States and other 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.

“For 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. We previously 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.

“Faced with these realities, in the 2017 USTR Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, this Administration announced 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. 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 several assessments. First, 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. Second, China has failed to comply with these expectations. Third, 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. Finally, 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 Administration’s more aggressive approach to China, we have been 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.”

“Beginning in January 2020, the United States’ new approach to China began to demonstrate key progress with the signing of an historic trade agreement, known as the Phase One Agreement. This 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.

“The United States has been closely monitoring China’s progress in implementing its numerous commitments under the Phase One Agreement and has regularly engaged China using the extensive consultation processes established by the agreement to discuss China’s implementation progress and any concerns as they arise. Currently, the evidence indicates that China has been moving forward in good faith with the implementation of its commitments, making substantial progress in many areas.

“Because the Phase One Agreement does not cover all of the United States’ concerns, the United States will need to turn to Phase Two of its trade negotiations with China in order to secure resolutions to important outstanding issues. These discussions should focus on critical issues in areas such as subsidies, excess capacity, state-owned enterprises, state-sponsored cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, standards, cybersecurity, data localization requirements, restrictions on cross-border data transfers, competition policy and regulatory transparency as well as certain issues in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer and services market access that were not addressed in the Phase One Agreement.

“Going forward, it is the Administration’s hope that China will continue to take the United States’ concerns seriously and engage with the United States on a productive basis. If China does so and the two sides are able to finalize and implement a comprehensive Phase Two Agreement, it will benefit not only the United States, but also China itself and the rest of the WTO membership. It may also generate a willingness on the part of China to take on similar new disciplines at the WTO.”

The report is embedded below.

2020USTRReportCongressChinaWTOCompliance

For the incoming Biden Administration, there are many important issues relating to China in the trade arena that will be front and center. With an announced intention by the President-elect to have greater cooperation with trading partners, one can expect (a) greater focus on the U.S.-EU-Japan efforts at WTO reform on subsidies, state-owned enterprises and forced technology transfer (with outreach to other Members), (b) outreach to WTO Members to develop approaches to deal with other Chinese distortions, (c) continued efforts to achieve a meaningful e-commerce plurilateral agreement in the ongoing Joint Statement Initiative, and (d) a fisheries subsidies agreement by the time of the 12th Ministerial meeting later this year. On the bilateral front, continued monitoring (and where necessary enforcement) of the Phase 1 Agreement with China should be a priority as well as the start to a Phase 2 negotiation. The USTR under the Trump Administration has devoted significant resources to laying out the challenges posed by the differences in economic systems and pursuing actions to address some of the major distortions. Whether the Biden Administration agrees with all of the individual actions taken in the last four years, it is important that the problems flowing from different economic systems be addressed with all tools that are available and be an important topic in WTO reform talks.

While the Free Trade Agreements that China is party to do not address the problems of differing economic systems (market-oriented vs. state-directed), this issue is fundamental to the U.S. view of making the WTO system function moving forward. Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff has identified in a number of speeches what he believes are key principles undergirding the WTO. Convergence vs. coexistence is how he articulates a core challenge for the organization, and has listed convergence as a core principle. In his recent speech at the January 13 virtual meeting put on by Chatham House on possible issues for reform at the WTO, DDG Wolff said “WTO Members and their Secretariat will have to deal with a number of external problems because there is no choice. Do differing economic systems affect the bargained for conditions for trade? Is the WTO of the future to be about convergence more than coexistence?” WTO, DDG Wolff outlines possible responses to calls for WTO reform, January 13, 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/ddgaw_13jan21_e.htm. China has taken the position that coexistence is all that can be expected, that the WTO is not the forum to look at different economic systems, and has opposed efforts to address the fundamental issue at the WTO. The U.S. has laid out the case for why convergence is a critical aspect of the WTO. While China was moving towards convergence in the early years after its accession to the WTO at the end of 2001, its path for the last decade has been away from convergence. The future of the WTO may very well depend on whether this core divide can be addressed in a manner that permits distortions of any economic system to be addressed and ensures results are based on market conditions and not government fiat.

WTO dispute settlement in 2020 – forward movement or further crisis?

As of April 20, 2020, there has been relatively limited new activity within the WTO on dispute settlement. Indeed just two requests for consultations were filed in the first quarter of 2020. While not the lowest number for the first quarter, it is one of the lowest over the first 25+ years of the WTO existence. The reason or reasons for the low number of disputes is not known. However, many WTO Members are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic at home reducing the focus on WTO activities. Moreover, the pandemic has disrupted the ability of the WTO to conduct business as usual, with no meetings in person having taken place over the last month and with many Members arguing against making substantive decisions during the pendency of the pandemic lockdown in many countries. See https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/hod_17apr20_e.htm

There have been a few Appellate Body reports on disputes where Appellate Body hearings had occurred before December 10, 2019 and some panel reports issued in ongoing cases. The Appellate Body will not issue further reports after the plain packaging cases pending a resolution of the impasse on the functioning of the Appellate Body.

Arbitration under Art. 25 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding

The EU and fifteen other WTO Members have agreed to a Multi-Party Interim Arbitration Agreement to permit signatories to use arbitration along agreed lines as a substitute for an appeal within the WTO until the Appellate Body is back functioning. While the agreement has not been notified to the WTO as yet, pending signatories clearing domestic hurdles, the agreement is open to other WTO Members who wish to participate. See March 27 post, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/03/28/march-27-2020-agreement-on-interim-arbitration-process-by-eu-and-15-other-wto-members-to-handle-appeals-while-appellate-body-is-not-operational/

In an introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at an informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers on April 16, Commissioner Hogan stated that

“Working with like-minded WTO members since the effective collapse of the Appellate Body last December, we have developed the Multi Party Interim Arbitration Arrangement as a stop-gap to maintain an independent, two step dispute settlement function.

“There are 15 co-signatories alongside the EU, including some of the biggest users of the system, such as Brazil and China. I have also extended a broad invite to the entire membership to join, underlining the inclusive nature of the arrangement.

“There will be 10 arbitrators on the MPIA roster. The EU has the option of nominating a candidate. The nominee will need to be submitted by the end of May. We will notify the TPC of work on this in due course, respecting best practices used for the nomination of members of the Appellate Body heretofore.”

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en.

EU’s efforts to retaliate without WTO authorization where Appellate Body is not functioning and defending party does not agree to arbitration

The EU has also been working to develop regulatory authority to impose sanctions without WTO authorization on Members against whom the EU has brought disputes when such Members lose panel decisions at the WTO, don’t participate in arbitration and rather file an appeal when the Appellate Body is not functioning, preventing retaliation at the WTO. See https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2014_2019/plmrep/AUTRES_INSTITUTIONS/COMM/COM/2020/02-19/COM_COM20190623_EN.pdf.

COM_COM20190623_EN

The EU Council and Parliament need to meet to agree to a modified final text. It is assumed that a major target of the EU actions is the United States. There are two pending disputes that the EU has with the US where panels are underway, including the EU challenge to the US Section 232 actions on steel and aluminum and the EU challenge of a countervailing duty order on olives from Spain.

On the 232 dispute, the EU did not pursue a challenge prior to taking retaliation, claiming that the US use of the national security law (Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, as amended) on steel and aluminum was in effect a safeguard action. Thus, the EU claimed it was justified in retaliating to a certain extent immediately consistent with the Safeguard Agreement. The U.S. has filed a dispute challenging the EU’s retaliation as the U.S. action was not taken under U.S. safeguard (escape clause) law but pursuant to a national security law making the EU retaliation inappropriate. Both disputes are pending before panels at the WTO.

The interesting element of the EU’s pursuit of new regulatory authority is its willingness to act outside of the WTO while wrapping itself in the mantle of champion of the multilateral system.

China’s challenge of U.S. tariffs following Section 301 of Trade Act of 1974 investigation (and retaliations by China)

In August 2017, USTR commenced an investigation into whether certain actions of the Chinese government violated Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Forced technology transfer, cybertheft of intellectual property and other issues were investigated by USTR and resulted in a determination in early 2018 of violations of U.S. law. The USTR fact sheet issued in 2018 is attached and embedded below. https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/fact-sheets/2018/march/section-301-fact-sheet.

Section-301-Fact-Sheet-_-United-States-Trade-Representative

Original tariffs imposed when the unfair practices were not addressed by China were $50 billion. Those amounts were increased as China retaliated against the U.S. without authorization from the WTO. Ultimately, the U.S. imposed tariffs on more than $360 billion and China imposed retaliatory tariffs on nearly all of U.S. exports to China.. https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/fact-sheets/2018/march/section-301-fact-sheet.

China filed a WTO dispute after the initial tariffs imposed by the United States. WT/DS543. It filed two additional requests for consultations as the U.S. expanded tariffs on other products, although both of these requests for consulation remain in the consultation phase. WT/DS565 and WT/DS587. The U.S. filed a challenge to China’s retaliation. WT/DS558.

While the panel proceedings have been underway in Geneva, the United States and China reached a Phase One Agreement in January 2020. See prior posts, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/15/u-s-china-phase-1-trade-agreement-signed-on-january-15-an-impressive-agreement-if-enforced/; https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/19/u-s-china-phase-1-agreement-details-on-the-expanding-trade-chapter/.

The WTO dispute settlement panel provided a notice to the parties that the panel decision would be available to the parties by the end of June (a little more than two months from now). See WT/DS543/9 (15 April 2020). Because the dispute involves the largest amount of trade (at least when considering the additional actions by both the U.S. and China) of any trade dispute in the history of the WTO, the panel decision will not only be carefully watched by all members but could result in major rifts within the organization by one or both of the parties.

China’s briefs in disputes are typically not publicly available. The U.S. always releases public versions of its briefs. The below excerpt from the first U.S. submission in WT/DS543 gives a glimpse of the importance of the case from the United States perspective. The entire first brief is embedded.

“I. INTRODUCTION

“1. Technology, intellectual property, and innovation are the foundation of the competitiveness of the United States and many other Members in the world economy. China has chosen to adopt a range of policies and practices to obtain an unfair competitive edge over other Members by stealing or otherwise unfairly acquiring their technology and intellectual property. Where those policies or practices can be addressed through WTO rules, the United States is pursuing WTO dispute settlement. Most of China’s practices, however, are not covered by existing WTO disciplines.

“2. In these circumstances, the United States is pursuing its sovereign right to protect its fundamental economic competitiveness from China’s unfair, predatory, and harmful technology-transfer policies. The purpose of the U.S. tariff action is to obtain the elimination of China’s unfair practices, and thereby to promote a fair and sustainable trading system for the United States and all other Members that rely on technology and intellectual property for their competitiveness in world markets. Unfortunately, China has responded not by reforming its unfair technology-transfer policies, but instead by imposing retaliatory tariffs on most U.S. goods.

“3. In pursuing this course of action, China has demonstrated what the Panel should conclude in response to China’s pursuit of this dispute – namely, that this is a bilateral dispute between the United States and China concerning key economic issues not covered by existing WTO rules. In short, this dispute is fundamentally not about WTO rights and obligations.

“4. China’s decision to pursue this dispute represents a profound misuse and abuse of the WTO dispute settlement system. Having already adopted retaliation in response to the U.S. measures aimed at obtaining a fair world trading system, China knows full well that any WTO findings will not contribute to the resolution of the matter. Rather, China’s pursuit of this dispute is a cynical and hypocritical attempt to try to have the WTO side with China in the ongoing dispute involving China’s unfair technology transfer policies. To elaborate:

“5. In bringing this dispute, China seeks to abuse the WTO dispute settlement system by attempting to use it as a shield for a broad range of unfair and trade-distorting technology transfer policies and practices not covered by WTO rules. In doing so, it is China, and certainly not the United States, that – as China puts it – ‘is undermining’1 the viability of the multilateral trading system.

“6. China’s decision to launch this dispute is hypocritical. China is currently retaliating against the United States by imposing duties on most U.S. exports – over $100 billion of trade. China cannot legitimately challenge measures at issue for being “unilateral”2 and WTO-inconsistent, while at the same time openly adopting its own unilateral tariff measures in connection with the very same matter.

“7. The matters related to this dispute are currently subject to bilateral discussions between the Governments of China and the United States. The parties are holding these discussions at multiple levels, including between the leaders of the two disputing parties. It is those bilateral discussions, and not any possible findings to be adopted by the Dispute Settlement Body (“DSB”), that will resolve the important issues arising from China’s unfair and harmful technology transfer policies, from the U.S. response to those policies, and from China’s unilateral retaliation.

“8. Under these circumstances, the outcome of a dispute settlement proceeding would be pointless, and, worse – a misuse by China of the dispute settlement system by trying to have the WTO side with China in support of its fundamentally unfair technology transfer policies. As noted, China has already taken the unilateral decision that the U.S. measures cannot be justified under WTO rules, and on that basis, already imposed tariff measures on most U.S. goods. Accordingly, addressing China’s legal claims would not ‘secure a positive solution to [this] dispute,’3 as China has already adopted the response that China unilaterally has determined is appropriate.

“9. Fundamentally, both the United States and China have recognized that this matter is not a WTO issue: China has taken the unilateral decision to adopt aggressive industrial policy measures to steal or otherwise unfairly acquire the technology of its trading partners; the United States has adopted tariff measures to try to obtain the elimination of China’s unfair and distortive technology-transfer policies; and China has chosen to respond – not by addressing the legitimate concerns of the United States – but by adopting its own tariff measures in an attempt to pressure the United States to abandon its concerns, and thus in an effort to maintain its unfair policies indefinitely.

“10. By taking actions in their own sovereign interests, both parties have recognized that this matter does not involve the WTO and have settled the matter themselves. Accordingly, there in fact is no live dispute involving WTO rights and obligations. Therefore, in light of each party’s action settling the matter, the report of the Panel should “be confined” to a brief description reporting that the parties have reached their own resolution, as provided for in Article 12.7 of the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes (‘DSU’).4

“11. Even aside from the fact that the parties have settled the matter through their actions, were the Panel to examine China’s contentions, the Panel would find that the U.S. measures at issue would be justified under WTO rules.

“12. The United States adopted the measures at issue in this dispute to combat China’s longstanding policy and practice of using government interventions, coercion, and subterfuge to steal or otherwise improperly acquire intellectual property, trade secrets, technology, and confidential business information from U.S. companies with the aim of advantaging Chinese companies and advancing China’s industrial policy goals. Although China’s conduct is not addressed by current WTO rules, it is unfair and contrary to basic moral standards. No WTO Member endorses forced technology transfer policies and practices such as those employed by China.

“13. Indeed, such fundamentally unfair policies and practices undermine support for an international trading system that permits such practices to escape discipline, undermine U.S. norms against theft and coercion, and undermine the belief in fair competition and respect for innovation, all of which are key aspects of U.S. culture (as well as that in a number of other Members). ). The United States does not undertake these activities against Chinese citizens or companies. China’s non-reciprocal and morally wrong behaviour further threatens to undermine U.S. society’s belief in the fairness and utility of the WTO trading system, if that system creates the conditions for, and fails to address, a fundamentally uneven playing field. Accordingly, the measures at issue in this dispute are legally justified because they are measures “necessary to protect public morals” within the meaning of Article XX(a) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (“GATT 1994”).

“14. Finally, the United States notes that one of the U.S. measures that China is challenging in this dispute is not within the Panel’s terms of reference because it was issued and took effect after China requested the establishment of a panel. Accordingly, for this additional reason, there is no legal basis for the Panel to examine or make any findings with respect to that measure.

“15. The United States emphasizes that a world trading system where one Member can adopt policies to steal or unfairly acquire technology and intellectual property from its trading partners, and where the organization responsible for overseeing world trade would entertain a request to issue findings in support of the Member adopting these unfair actions, is simply unsustainable. In order to maintain the viability and relevance of the WTO, this Panel must reject China’s request that the Panel make findings that China might use as support for maintaining its fundamentally unfair technology transfer policies and practices.

“1 See China’s First Written Submission, para. 5.

“2 See China’s First Written Submission, paras. 3, 4, 5, 24.

“3 See DSU Article 3.7 (Providing in part that “The aim of the dispute settlement mechanism is to secure a positive solution to a dispute.”).

“4 See DSU, Article 12.7 (‘Where the parties to the dispute have failed to develop a mutually satisfactory solution, the panel shall submit its findings in the form of a written report to the DSB. In such cases, the report of a panel shall set out the findings of fact, the applicability of relevant provisions and the basic rationale behind any findings and recommendations that it makes. Where a settlement of the matter among the parties to the dispute has been found, the report of the panel shall be confined to a brief description of the case and to reporting that a solution has been reached.’). (emphasis added).”

US.Sub1_.DS543.fin_.public

Canada’s dispute with the U.S. over Countervailing Duty Order on Supercalendered Paper from Canada

Canada pursued a challenge to a countervailing duty investigation and order on supercalendered paper from Canada conducted by the United States and received reports from the panel and Appellate Body that the U.S. actions were inconsistent with WTO obligations. Canada pursued the challenge despite the fact that the order had been revoked retroactively by the United States. In a submission posted today on the WTO website, Canada has given notice that it intends to seek retaliation at such time as the DSB is able to convene (recognizing the present inability to meet because of the COVID-19 lockdown in place). WT/DS505/11 (20 April 2020).

Because the United States has viewed the panel and Appellate Body as having erred in their decisions in the case and because of the importance to the United States of its countervailing duty law in addressing other countries subsidy practices, any such action by Canada is likely to worsen the dynamics in Geneva and in capitals in terms of reaching reform of the dispute settlement system.

Needed reforms of the dispute settlement system

While there has been activity to put in place for some Members an arbitration system, there is little indication of any effort to pursue resolution of the underlying reform needs to the dispute settlement system outlined by the United States over the last several years. See prior posts, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/03/07/impasse-on-the-wto-appellate-body-any-progress-likely-by-the-12th-ministerial/; https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/02/14/ustrs-report-on-the-wto-appellate-body-an-impressive-critique-of-the-appellate-bodys-deviation-from-its-proper-role/; https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/30/wto-appellate-body-impasse-how-and-why/.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made forward movement more difficult as attention of most countries, understandably, is focused on the immediate needs of their populations to address the global pandemic.

Conclusion

With the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference already postponed, with meetings at the WTO cancelled through at least April, there has been increasingly diminished hopes for what the WTO can achieve in 2020. While the dumbing down of expectations appears true across the board of the WTO’s reform program and pending negotiations, it is certainly true for reform of the dispute settlement system. The EU and China have engaged in unilateral action regardless of WTO rules (generally where the U.S. has taken actions that the others disagree with and don’t want to work through the WTO system or pursue reform). The U.S. has taken aggressive actions in a number of situations, though they have articulated WTO justifications for the actions which justifications are currently subject to WTO dispute settlement (but usually in situations where the Members challenging the U.S. have unilaterally retaliated without WTO authorization).

With important panel decisions due out yet this year and with EU actions to give itself retaliation rights regardless of WTO authorization while the Appellate Body is nonfunctioning, the likelihood of WTO Members focusing on dispute settlement reform are seemingly nonexistent for the foreseeable future. The ride is likely going to get a lot bumpier in the coming months.

WTO Reform – U.S. Objectives from 2020 Trade Policy Agenda

The United States Trade Representative annually releases the Administration’s Trade Policy Agenda and prior year’s Annual Report. The report is released during February each year. On February 28, 2020, USTR released the 2020 Trade Policy Agenda and 2019 Annual Report of the President of the Untied States on the Trade Agreements Program. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2020_Trade_Policy_Agenda_and_2019_Annual_Report.pdf.

This year’s trade policy agenda reviews activities at the WTO, including certain important disputes (pages 9-11), a review of where the U.S. perceives it led efforts to change the World Trade Organization (pages 13-15), and identifies priorities for 2020 at the WTO. Such priorities include pursuing disputes through the WTO where appropriate and pushing “for a WTO that reflects current economic realities and strengthens free-market economies”. Pages 18-19. As stated in the report,

“The United States will continue to lead the effort on WTO reform. In addition to addressing the Appellate Body, seeking a new fisheries agreement, pursuing a digital commerce agreement, enforcing notifications
obligations, and seeking reform of ‘special and differential treatment’ for “developing” countries, the United States will advocate for other changes at the WTO that will have the WTO working for its Members. A number of features at the WTO reflect out-of-date assumptions and do not reflect current realities. The United States has already submitted papers focused on market access and tariff issues with the intent of updating our understanding of the current state of agriculture trade and the challenges farmers are facing today. Through our agriculture ‘reset’ efforts, the United States is trying to break the bad habit of taking the same entrenched positions and expecting a different outcome.

“The United States will also explore a broader reset at the WTO. The WTO currently locks-in outdated tariff determinations that no longer reflect deliberate policy choices and economic realities. As a result, many countries that have large economies that have developed significantly over the past two decades continue to maintain very high bound tariff rates, far in excess of the rates applied by the United States or to which the United States is bound. For example, the U.S. average bound tariff rate and applied Most Favored Nation rate are both 3.4 percent. In comparison, Brazil’s bound tariff rate is 31.4 percent, and its applied rate is 13 percent. India’s bound and applied tariff rates are 48.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
Members need to fundamentally rethink tariffs and their role, recognizing that commitments on tariffs should reflect current economic conditions.

“In addition, the United States will continue to push for a close review of the WTO’s budget, which, as demonstrated by egregious Appellate Body member salaries, requires greater scrutiny. The WTO must ensure that there is accountability and that expenditures reflect the priorities of its Members.

“Finally, the United States will advocate for changes that allow for additional and more effective plurilateral agreements. There is an urgent need for a new political and legal understanding at the WTO that enables
the pursuit of less-than-fully multilateral outcomes while preserving the characteristics of the WTO.”

The importance of the U.S. focus on a “broader reset” to the functioning of the WTO should be obvious. The GATT and WTO have worked on a system of periodic enlargement of liberalization with members undertaking specific additional obligations through tariff bindings or service sector commitments or through changes to agreements. The U.S. is seeking a fundamental modification in the approach to obligations, one which reflects changing capacities of the members and one which reflects the organizing principle of agreements among market economies. In a consensus-based system, any of the fundamental reforms that the U.S. has been seeking are not achievable without a major crisis and most likely not even then.

The WTO dispute settlement system is in the throes of a crisis over the proper functioning of the Appellate Body. The United States has provided a detailed review of the problems over the last two years, the history of when problems developed and how the problems identified constitute deviations from the purpose and structure of the Dispute Settlement Understanding. Despite some efforts by other WTO Members, resolution of the impasse seems a long way off based on the different positions of major players.

Similarly, that the GATT and WTO are premised on market-based economies is hardly controversial. Yet, the rise in importance of nonmarket or state-directed economies as Members has created distortions in the functioning of markets and challenges the viability of the WTO and certainly the adequacy of current WTO rules. The issue of different economic systems within the WTO has created a second crisis in fact.

While the United States, the European Union and Japan have been working on proposals to address certain drivers of the distortions created by nonmarket economies, the recent General Council meeting shows the challenge to having movement even on the rules needed to address such distortions. Compare statements of the United States and China from the General Council meeting of March 3, 2020. https://geneva.usmission.gov/2020/03/03/statements-by-ambassador-dennis-shea-at-the-march-3-2020-general-council-meeting/ (agenda item 9); http://wto2.mofcom.gov.cn/article/chinaviewpoins/202003/20200302941477.shtml.

U.S. Views on the WTO at 25 and What are the U.S. Interests

The 2020 Trade Policy Agenda and 2019 Annual Report from USTR contains an important chapter, “The World Trade Organization at Twenty-Five and U.S. Interests”, which reviews the Trump Administration’s views of whether U.S. interests have been served by the WTO as it has functioned and what is needed to make the WTO function as intended. The sixteen page section of the report provides a concise review of U.S. concerns with the WTO and the Administration’s objectives for WTO reform. A lengthy excerpt (pages 4-8) follows:

2. Straying from the Original Mandate

“The past quarter century has demonstrated that the WTO fails to act in accordance with its aspirational goals and is incapable of dealing with many of the major challenges facing the modern international trading
system. This is due in large part to the difficulty the organization has faced when it has attempted to negotiate improvements to the system since the Uruguay Round in 1994.

“Under the GATT system, between 1947 and 1994, there were eight negotiating rounds – each of which led to lower tariffs and fewer trade barriers among all GATT Members. But in the twenty-five years since the
WTO began operation—though there have been some positive agreements that address discrete aspects of trade—Members have not reached a significant new multilateral market access agreement. As a result, most of the fundamental rules that govern global trade were negotiated before the WTO even came into existence.

“The last major effort to modernize these rules under the WTO – the Doha Round – started to collapse in 2008, and has now been dead for more than a decade. Despite all of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last quarter century – the rise of China, the evolution of the Internet, and the emergence of new, potentially disruptive technologies – the WTO is still largely operating under the same framework from the early 1990s. This has resulted in several major failures of the WTO to live up to its mandate.

“a. Failure to Converge: The Challenge of Non-Market Economies

“The political, economic, and trade landscape in 2020 differs greatly from those that existed in 1994. At the time the WTO came into existence, many in the West hoped that most nations of the world would coalesce around a model of open societies, free markets, and democratic values. It was hoped that such a movement would usher in an era of relative peace in which geopolitical considerations would become less of a factor, and competition would exist primarily at the commercial rather than the political level. This optimism prevailed in Washington and other Western capitals despite warning signs that some nations were not committed to openness.

“Twenty-five years later, a starker reality has come into view as non-market economies like China continue to perceive advantages in maintaining state-directed economic policies. The growing influence of these non-market economies in world trade amplifies the need for the WTO to update its rulebook with new disciplines on industrial subsidies, state-owned and state-influenced enterprises, forced technology transfer, and intellectual property theft. The WTO must also meaningfully address issues like digital trade and labor and environmental standards.

“The WTO’s failure to keep pace with new developments in the global economy has resulted in significant advantages for non-market economies to the detriment of market economies like the United States. As just one example, scholars estimate that China’s accession to the WTO has contributed to the loss of millions of jobs in the United States, primarily in the manufacturing sector.

“Moreover, the establishment of the WTO has ushered in an era of massive global trade imbalances. While neutral market factors contribute to these long-running imbalances, that the imbalances remain unchanged for decades, despite varying periods of growth and recession, indicates there are other, non-market factors at play. Unfortunately, the global trade system under the WTO currently enables these distortions and imbalances, and the benefits enjoyed by some countries at the expense of others under the current system create serious barriers to reform.

“While China is not the only country that has benefitted from the WTO’s deficiencies, it remains the primary example of the non-market economies thriving under the current system. China’s economic practices are incompatible with the norms the WTO sought to establish at its founding,
and the organization has demonstrated an inability to respond effectively to the challenges it poses.

“b. Failure to Develop: Outdated Standards and Rules for Developing Countries

“No one expected in 1994 that the Uruguay Round and Marrakesh Agreement would be the final word on world trade policy. As with the previous era of world trade under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1947, parties assumed there would be additional rounds of agreements to update rules and address new challenges in world trade over time. This process has not occurred, leaving in place outdated rules that have failed to keep pace with the changing world.

“The significant advantages some countries enjoy over others under the current system have completely undermined incentives for Members to agree to meaningful changes and reforms. While there are several examples of these unfair advantages, many stem from two structural issues.
First, current WTO rules allow large and advanced economies to claim special and differential treatment as “Developing Countries” during negotiations. Second, the bound tariff rates established at the time Members entered the agreement are essentially permanent under current rules.

“i. Treatment of Advanced Economies as “Developing Countries”

“Despite the substantial growth of the global economy since 1994, the WTO continues to rest on an outdated and oversimplified dichotomy between developed and developing countries. This framework has allowed some WTO Members to maintain unfair advantages in the international trade arena.

“Under the current system, countries merely need to self-declare as “developing” – regardless of their GDP or role in global trade – to seek flexibilities under WTO rules. This special and differential treatment can take the form of generous transition periods, higher tariff bindings, and the ability to use prohibited subsidies, among others.

“Today, nearly two-thirds of WTO Members claim developing-country status, arguing they are entitled to blanket special and differential treatment as a matter of right. While some developing-country designations are certainly legitimate, many are entirely unreasonable in light of current economic circumstances. For example, advanced economies like China,
India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey continue to insist they are automatically entitled to special and differential treatment. A similar claim is made by some of the richest nations in the world, including Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

“The clear purpose of special and differential treatment is to help truly disadvantaged countries ease their economies into the global trade system. This does not work if large or wealthy countries abuse this framework and seek to take advantage of benefits meant for countries whose economies are truly just getting off the ground.

“The lack of differentiation among self-declared developing countries has also severely hampered the WTO’s ability to achieve meaningful negotiated outcomes that expand market access, as certain large and advanced economies feel entitled to claim exemption from new rules, avoid engagement on substantive issues, and maintain outdated asymmetries that work to their advantage.

“ii. Permanent Disparate Tariff Rates

“The WTO has failed to harmonize tariffs over time. As a result, many significant global traders continue to have very high bound tariff rates, far in excess of U.S. bound or applied tariff rates.

“The U.S. average bound tariff rate and applied most-favored-nation (MFN) rate are both 3.4 percent. In comparison, Brazil’s bound tariff rate is 31.4 percent, and its applied rate is 13 percent. India’s bound and applied tariff rates are 48.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

“Under current WTO rules, these rates are locked in place with no sunset clause or meaningful mechanism to allow the United States and other Members to address enormous differences. It is not reasonable to accept that because the United States agreed to such disparities many years ago, when economic and geopolitical conditions were very different, that the United States should tolerate them in perpetuity. Commitments on tariffs should keep pace with the realities of the global economy rather than locking certain countries into nonreciprocal rates.

“c. Failure to Enforce: A Breakdown in the Rules as Originally Agreed

“The WTO has strayed from the system agreed to by WTO members and has appropriated to itself powers that WTO Members never intended to give it. This drift has primarily taken place in relation to transparency require- ments and the dispute settlement system.

“i. Transparency

“All WTO Members undertake significant commitments to provide regular notifications of subsidy programs and other information critical to assessing trade conditions around the world. Despite these clear obligations, many U.S. trading partners – including significant economies like China and India – choose to ignore them. As of December 2019, more than 70 percent of Members had not submitted their most recent questionnaire on their import licensing procedures, and over a quarter of agriculture notifications from 1995-2016 were outstanding. This poor adherence to notification obligations has created a lack of transparency at the WTO, which has led to the failure of many Members to implement
existing commitments and the breakdown of negotiations. When countries cannot adhere to these most basic of existing obligations, it is unsurprising that they cannot achieve consensus on new, more ambitious commitments.

“ii. The Dispute Settlement Process

“The United States signed on to the Uruguay Round Agreements with the understanding that its sovereignty would be respected and its existing domestic laws dealing with unfair foreign trade practices would remain fully effective. Instead, the WTO’s Appellate Body has imposed new rules never agreed by the United States or approved by the Congress, dramatically undermining this understanding.

“Article 3.2 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding plainly states, ‘Recommendations and rulings of the Dispute Settlement Body cannot add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in the [WTO] covered agreements.’ In other words, the dispute settlement process was never intended to make new rules that would become binding on Members. It
was instead designed to help Members resolve specific disputes among themselves about the application of existing rules, as set out in the text of the agreements. These limitations remain vital to U.S. sovereignty because they ensure the United States does not become bound by obligations that Congress has not approved.

“Over the last quarter century, the United States has become the chief target of litigation at the WTO, and has at least partially lost the overwhelming majority of cases brought against it. 155 disputes have been filed against the United States, while no other Member has faced even a hundred disputes. According to some analyses, up to 90 percent of the disputes pursued against the U.S. have resulted in a report finding that a U.S. law or other measure in question was inconsistent with WTO agreements. This averages out to five or six successful WTO disputes against the United States every year.

“In other words, the WTO has effectively treated one of the world’s freest and most open economies – with an enormous and growing trade deficit – as the world’s greatest trade outlaw. In so doing, the WTO’s Appellate Body has repeatedly created new obligations from whole cloth. For example:

“ The Appellate Body has attacked U.S. countervailing duty laws, making it easier for other countries to provide market distorting subsidies through non-market policies and practices.

“ The Appellate Body has interpreted WTO rules in a manner that puts the U.S. tax system at an unfair and illogical disadvantage compared to that of many trading partners.

“ The Appellate Body has interpreted the Agreement on Safeguards – an agreement critical to addressing global import surges that can overwhelm a particular industry – in a manner that significantly limits the ability of Members to use that vital provision.

“ The Appellate Body has interfered with the appropriations process by limiting Congress’s ability to spend money collected through antidumping and countervailing duties.

“In many cases, the Appellate Body’s interpretations of WTO rules would prevent the United States from taking action to address unfair trade practices that hurt U.S. workers In this sense, it has also usurped the U.S. government’s accountability to those who are truly sovereign – the American people.

“For many years, U.S. Administrations under both parties have warned trading partners of the harm resulting from Appellate Body activism. The Appellate Body simply cannot be allowed to flaunt basic rules of operation to which all Members have agreed. Thus far, U.S. concerns have largely been ignored.

“These lapses have incentivized WTO Members to rely on litigation through the Appellate Body to get results rather than negotiation. This, in turn, has greatly undermined the negotiating process at the WTO because countries now believe they can obtain better outcomes through litigation than through negotiation, especially with the United States. Such countries have no incentive to negotiate in good faith if they believe there are easier
avenues to pursue their interests.

“Furthermore, in its day-to-day operations, the Appellate Body has developed a troubling pattern of ignoring mandatory deadlines for deciding appeals, dragging some – such as those in the U.S.-EU Large Civil Aircraft disputes – out for over a year each; making impermissible findings on issues of fact, including fact-finding related to Member’s domestic laws; issuing unnecessary advisory opinions rather than facilitating negotiations
between parties; treating prior Appellate Body interpretations as binding precedent for dispute settlement panels; extending Appellate Body members’ terms without authority; and compensating Appellate Body members excessively and opaquely.

“These actions represent a tendency by the Appellate Body to both institute rules to which WTO Members have not agreed and ignore or evade existing rules written in plain language. This has led to a significant decline in trust in the Appellate Body, which has opened the entire dispute settlement system to serious vulnerabilities. The WTO simply cannot claim to stand for a rules-based trading system if its own institutions fail to follow clear and explicit rules. Any action beyond these rules undermines the WTO’s role as a negotiation forum, lacks legitimacy, and usurps Members’ sovereignty.

3. Summary

“Despite the serious challenges facing the World Trade Organization, the United States values the WTO and is working diligently within the organization to find solutions. For example, the United States is actively engaged in negotiations to discipline harmful fishing subsidies and to develop new rules to govern digital trade. The United States has called attention to unequal bound and applied tariff rates, and continues to press other Members for additional market access. The United States has also offered specific proposals to improve transparency, address the lack of compliance with existing notification obligations, and promote greater differentiation among self-declared developing countries. The United
States continues to press longstanding concerns with the Appellate Body and the dispute settlement system, including its lack of transparency. The United States has taken each of these steps in an attempt to ensure that the WTO retains its relevance to trading nations.”

Chances for Meaningful Reform are Slim at Best

Many WTO Members recognize that WTO reform is important. The WTO Director-General and his team have noted the need for reform and the fact that reform has become an important topic in the last year or so. See, e.g., DDG Wolff: An update of multilateral trade rules is needed to increase their relevance, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_03mar20_e.htm;

However, few, if any, Members other than the United States, have expressed the view that fundamental reform is needed to ensure the relevance of the WTO going forward. The U.S. objectives for reform are sweeping and would require many Members to accept broader liberalization, rules on nonmarket economy distortions, loss of historic privileges based on changed economic situations and a return to a system largely focused on negotiations to achieve changes in the status quo. Under rules of consensus and the views expressed by many Members, it is unlikely that the collective will for fundamental reform exists even if there is agreement that some reform is desirable.

For the Trump Administration fundamental reform is critical to making the WTO a viable organization and ensuring that trade relationships under multilateral rules are fair in an ongoing sense. What the U.S. seeks is an ambitious reform outcome. The USTR conclusion to its review of the WTO’s first 25 years (page 16, provided below) summarizes the concerns and indicates a continued U.S. commitment to the WTO. The U.S. is certain to continue to use all tools at its disposal to pursue meaningful reform or obtain reciprocity bilaterally. The message from the U.S. is clear. Let’s hope that meaningful reform will occur even if the likelihood of such reform seems remote.

CONCLUSION

“It is difficult now, twenty-five years after its inception, to declare the WTO a success for American interests. Indeed, the organization in many ways ignores and enables unbalanced trade and unfair trade practices. If the WTO is to be credible as a vibrant negotiating, implementation, and dispute settlement forum, it must be limited to its original mandate and address areas in need of structural reform. This means Members must recognize and reaffirm that the WTO is an organization committed to promoting the adoption of market-based policies by its Members. The goal of the organization must continue to be a greater convergence around market-based principles, not the co-existence of radically different economic systems. The WTO – and its dispute settlement system – must also respect the rules as agreed to by Members, embrace its role as a negotiating forum rather than a litigating entity, and stop its infringement on the sovereignty of the United States and other Members.

“Looking ahead to the Twelfth Ministerial Conference this year, the United States believes that Members must identify opportunities to make meaningful progress on these objectives. To remain a viable institution
that can fulfill all facets of its work, the WTO must also find a means of effectively pursuing negotiations between Ministerial Conferences, focus its work on structural reform, and adapt to address new challenges to the 21st Century world trade system. The United States looks forward to continuing its leadership role in advancing these changes and the broader mission of the World Trade Organization.”

WTO Reform – Addressing The Disconnect Between Market and Non-Market Economies

The GATT and the WTO were created by market economy countries, and the rules embodied within each reflect an effort to identify principles and rules that would promote reciprocal trade among its members. While there have long been members of the GATT and now the WTO that have not been market economies in fact, the problem of the distortions that occur to the global trading system from state-directed or non-market economies has come into sharp focus in the last twenty years with the accession and rapid growth of China and the accession of a number of other countries or the emulation of China’s model by existing members with substantial state direction, state ownership of business, state planning, forced technology transfer and massive subsidization.

While a number of WTO members have been concerned about the disconnect between the WTO rules-based system and such non-market economies where various conduct is not actually addressed by WTO rules, the United States has led the effort to obtain a reaffirmation of the market-oriented nature of the WTO and the need to address the distortions that exist but are not addressable under the WTO.

The European Union, Japan and the United States since the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in 2017 have been working on addressing the massive industrial subsidies, challenges from state-owned or invested enterprises and forced technology transfer. The recent joint declaration with identified changes to the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures was the subject of a prior post. See https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/01/14/wto-reform-joint-statement-of-january-14-2020-of-japan-the-u-s-and-the-eu/

The U.S. Raises the Issue of Nonmarket Economies in 2018

But the United States has led on the broader issue. The U.S. teed the issue up in a presentation to the General Council during the summer of 2018 with the submission of a fourteen page paper. China’s Trade-Disruptive Economic Model, Communication from the United States, WT/GC/W/745. The paper was broken down into four sections. The first dealt with “non-market oriented conditions set by the government and the party” looking at the objectives of control and at control at the firm level. The second section deal with “non-market allocation of resources” and covered non-market allocation of key means of production, industrial policies, and the use of law as an instrument of the Party State. The third section reviews the “costs to WTO Members of China’s economic model” covering topics like non-reciprocal and protected markets, excess capacity created by the Chinese model and the extensive use of forced technology transfer. The forth section looked at “benefits to China of its economic model”. The U.S. paper and the additional document submitted by the U.S. (2017 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance) are included below.

WTGCW745

WTGCW746

While the effort of the U.S. has been vigorously opposed by China and other like minded Members of the WTO, to the United States and other major players like the European Union and Japan, there cannot be meaningful WTO reform without addressing the distortions flowing from economic systems that are not premised on market principles or where the state has a large role.

The March 3-4, 2020 General Council Meeting

The first meeting of the WTO’s General Council in 2020 will be on March 3-4 (an informal meeting was held on February 21st). On the agenda will be the United States paper in the form of a draft General Council Decision titled “The Importance of Market-Oriented Conditions to the World Trading System”. WT/GC/W/796. The text is copied below:

“THE IMPORTANCE OF MARKET-ORIENTED CONDITIONS TO THE WORLD TRADING SYSTEM DRAFT GENERAL COUNCIL DECISION

“Communication from the United States

“The following communication, dated 20 February 2020, is being circulated at the request of the delegation of the United States.


“The General Council decides to adopt this declaration on the importance of market-oriented conditions to the world trading system.

“The General Council recalls that the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established to promote Member economies’ participation in a world trading system ‘based on open, market-oriented policies and the commitments set out in the Uruguay Round Agreements and Decisions’.1

“The General Council also recalls that the establishment of the WTO reflected Members’ ‘desire to operate in a fairer and more open multilateral trading system for the benefit and welfare of their peoples’ and, during the period of time during which the Uruguay Round was being negotiated, ‘significant measures of economic reform and autonomous trade liberalization were implemented in many developing countries and formerly centrally planned economies’.2

“The General Council expresses its serious concerns with non-market-oriented policies and practices that have resulted in damage to the world trading system and lead to severe overcapacity, create unfair competitive conditions for workers and businesses, hinder the development and use of
innovative technologies, and undermine the proper functioning of international trade.

“The General Council affirms that market-oriented conditions are fundamental to a free, fair, and mutually advantageous world trading system, to ensure a level playing field for Members’ workers
and businesses.

“The General Council affirms Members’ citizens and businesses should operate under market-oriented conditions and notes the following elements indicate and are important so that market-oriented conditions exist for market participants:3

“i. decisions of enterprises on prices, costs, inputs, purchases, and sales are freely determined and made in response to market signals;

“ii. decisions of enterprises on investments are freely determined and made in response to market signals;

“iii. prices of capital, labor, technology, and other factors are market-determined;

“iv. capital allocation decisions of or affecting enterprises are freely determined and made in response to market signals;

“v. enterprises are subject to internationally recognized accounting standards, including independent accounting;

“vi. enterprises are subject to market-oriented and effective corporation law, bankruptcy law, competition law, and private property law, and may enforce their rights through impartial legal processes, such as an independent judicial system;

“vii. enterprises are able to freely access relevant information on which to base their business decisions; and

“viii. there is no significant government interference in enterprise business decisions described above.

“The General Council agrees to reaffirm Members’ commitment to open, market-oriented policies in order to achieve market-oriented conditions that are critical to ensure a level playing field for workers and businesses and a fairer and more open world trading system that benefits their peoples.

“1 Marrakesh Declaration of 15 April 1994, fifth preambular paragraph.
“2 Marrakesh Declaration, paras. 2 and 4.
3″ This decision is without prejudice to the rights or obligations of any Member under the Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization.”

Conclusion

While a lot of attention remains on reform to the dispute settlement system to permit a return to a two-tiered level of review of Member actions, there has been a growing recognition that significant reform is needed for the WTO to restore its relevance in a rapidly changing global environment. While reform needs to address updating of rules to cover new areas and making existing rules more effective, there cannot be meaningful reform without addressing the disconnect between Members who operate on market economy principles and those that don’t.

While it is highly unlikely that in a consensus based system Members with economic systems that are not premised on market principles will agree to address the massive distortions their economic systems create, the future of the WTO depends on finding ways to address the differences and distortions. Look for a contentious General Council meeting on this topic.

USTR’s Report on the WTO Appellate Body — An Impressive Critique of the Appellate Body’s Deviation from Its Proper Role

On February 11, 2020 the U.S. Trade Representative released a Report on the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization . https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Report_on_the_Appellate_Body_of_the_World_Trade_Organization.pdf. The Report is a total of 174 pages, the report itself being 122 pages along with four appendices. The Report does not lay down what it views as the required solutions to the widespread problems that the United States has with the Appellate Body’s actions over the first twenty-five years of the WTO. But the report lays out the U.S. concerns in great detail, why the concerns reflect violations of the limited role of the Appellate Body within the WTO’s dispute settlement system and how WTO Members are harmed by the actions of the Appellate Body over time. The report goes over the issues that the U.S. has reviewed extensively at the Dispute Settlement Body and the General Council over the last two years and adds several additional concerns.

On the critical issue of Appellate Body overreach, the Report lays out examples of specific major problems for the United States in terms of the Appellate Body creating obligations or limiting rights under the WTO Agreements but identifies a number of other examples as well. It is fair to opine that the overreach issues flagged in the report constitute an absolute minimum of issues that need to be corrected for there to be an adequate restoration of rights and obligations in the view of the United States.

The appendices review concerns expressed over the last twenty years by members of Congress, various U.S. Trade Representatives and their Deputies on the continuing problem of WTO Appellate Body overreach vis-a-vis U.S. laws, regulations and practices, and actions by Congress calling for the U.S. Administration to address problems of WTO Appellate Body overreach.

In short, the Report is an extraordinary document that lays out in a comprehensive and coherent manner the U.S. view on why the WTO dispute settlement system has deviated far from its intended path. The full report is included below.

USTR-report-on-the-AB-of-the-WTO

The Report’s release at the time that the WTO Members seek a road forward on the dispute settlement system and how to restore an appellate body level of review gives all WTO Members notice that the U.S. is serious in insisting on Members coming to grips with how and why the Appellate Body has strayed so far from the limited mandate of the Dispute Settlement Understanding. Without a coming together of the Membership on the causes, one can expect that the United States will continue to block the start of selecting Appellate Body members.

Because certain major WTO Members seem unconcerned with (or are even supportive of) the violations that characterize a large number of Appellate Body decisions (at least on particular issues), it is not clear that meaningful movement and discussion will occur in the coming months in the lead up to the 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan in early June of this year. If not, resolution of the current impasse on the WTO Appellate Body is likely to drag on indefinitely.

Excerpts from the Executive Summary

The Executive Summary provides a concise review of the U.S. concerns. Excerpts are provided below (Report at 1-3):

“The United States and other free-market nations established the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) in 1995 as a forum for negotiating and implementing trade agreements. The dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO was designed to help Members resolve trade disputes arising under those agreements, without adding to or diminishing the rights and obligations to which Members had agreed. When the WTO dispute settlement system functions according to the agreed rules, it provides a vital tool to enforce Members’ WTO rights and obligations. For more than 20 years, however, the United States and other WTO Members have expressed serious concerns with the Appellate Body’s disregard for those rules.

“As detailed in this Report, the Appellate Body has repeatedly failed to apply the rules of the WTO agreements in a manner that adheres to the text of those agreements, as negotiated and agreed by WTO Members. The Appellate Body has strayed far from the limited role that WTO Members assigned to it, ignoring the text of the WTO agreements. Through this persistent overreaching, the Appellate Body has increased its own power and seized from sovereign nations and other WTO Members authority that it was not provided. For example:

“ The Appellate Body consistently ignores the mandatory deadline for deciding appeals;
“ The Appellate Body allows individuals who have ceased to serve on the Appellate Body to continue deciding appeals as if their term had been extended by WTO Members in the Dispute Settlement Body;
“ The Appellate Body has made findings on issues of fact, including issues of fact relating to WTO Members’ domestic law, although Members authorized it to address only legal issues;
“ The Appellate Body has issued advisory opinions and otherwise opined on issues not necessary to assist the WTO Dispute Settlement Body in resolving the dispute before it;
“ The Appellate Body has insisted that dispute settlement panels treat prior Appellate Body interpretations as binding precedent;
“ The Appellate Body has asserted that it may ignore WTO rules that explicitly mandate it recommend a WTO Member to bring a WTO-inconsistent measure into compliance with WTO rules; and
“ The Appellate Body has overstepped its authority and opined on matters within the authority of WTO Members acting through the Ministerial Conference, General Council, and Dispute Settlement Body.

“The Appellate Body’s persistent overreaching has also taken away rights and imposed new obligations through erroneous interpretations of WTO agreements. The Appellate Body has attempted to fill in “gaps” in those agreements, reading into them rights or obligations to which the United States and other WTO Members never agreed. These errors have favored non-market economies at the expense of market economies, rendered trade remedy laws ineffective, and infringed on Members’ legitimate policy space. For example:

“ The Appellate Body’s erroneous interpretation of the term “public body” threatens the ability of Members to counteract trade-distorting subsidies provided through SOEs, undermining the interests of all market-oriented actors;
“ The Appellate Body has intruded on Members’ legitimate policy space by essentially converting a non-discrimination obligation for regulations into a ‘detrimental impact’ test;
“ The Appellate Body has prevented WTO Members from fully addressing injurious dumping by prohibiting a common-sense method of calculating the extent of dumping that is injuring a domestic industry (“zeroing”);
“ The Appellate Body’s stringent and unrealistic test for using out-of-country benchmarks to measure subsidies has weakened the effectiveness of trade remedy laws in addressing distortions caused by state-owned enterprises in non-market economies;
“ The Appellate Body’s creation of an “unforeseen developments” test and severe causation analysis prevents the effective use of safeguards by WTO Members to protect their industries from import surges; and
“ The Appellate Body has limited WTO Members’ ability to impose countervailing duties and antidumping duties calculated using a non-market economy methodology to address simultaneous dumping and trade-distorting subsidization by non-market economies like China.

“For many years, successive Administrations and the U.S. Congress have voiced significant concerns about the Appellate Body’s disregard for the rules agreed to by WTO Members. As set forth in the Appendices to this Report, in multiple Congressional Sessions, up to and including the current Session, Senators and Representatives of both parties have voiced urgent concerns and the need for reform in numerous resolutions, reports, and statements.1

“1 See Statements by Members of the United States Congress Expressing Concerns with Appellate Body Overreaching (Appendix A1); Congressional Legislation and Reports Expressing Concern with Appellate Body
Overreaching (Appendix A2); Statements by U.S. Trade Representatives or Their Deputies on Appellate Body Overreach (Appendix B1); and Statements by the United States to the WTO Dispute Settlement Body Expressing Concerns with the Appellate Body’s Failure to Follow WTO Rules and Erroneous Interpretations of the WTO Agreements (Appendix B2).

“Unfortunately, U.S. efforts were ignored, and the problem has worsened as too many WTO Members remain unwilling to do anything to rein in this conduct. The proper functioning of the WTO Appellate Body has a disproportionate impact on the United States because more than one quarter of all disputes at the WTO have been challenges to U.S. laws or other measures. Specifically, 155 disputes have been filed against the United States, and no other Member has faced even a hundred disputes. According to some analyses, up to approximately 90 percent of the disputes pursued against the U.S. have led to a report finding that the U.S. law or other measure was inconsistent with WTO agreements. This means that, on average, over the past 25 years, the WTO has found a U.S. law or measure WTO-inconsistent between five and six times per year, every year.

“But these failings have dire consequences for U.S. interests in the WTO, and for all WTO Members, as well. The negotiating function of the WTO has atrophied as the Appellate Body has facilitated efforts by some Members to obtain through litigation what they have not achieved through negotiation; the effectiveness of WTO tools designed to address distortions by nonmarket economies has been greatly diminished; and the WTO dispute settlement system continues to lose the credibility necessary to maintain public support for the system.

“In short, the Appellate Body’s failure to follow the agreed rules has undermined not only WTO dispute settlement, but the effectiveness and functioning of the WTO more generally. Furthermore, by encouraging behavior that distorts markets, the Appellate Body has helped to make the global economy less efficient. Lasting and effective reform of the WTO dispute settlement system requires all WTO Members to come to terms with the failings of the Appellate Body.”

Additional Comments

The Executive Summary lists seven ways in which the Appellate Body has deviated from the limited role assigned to the Appellate Body within the Dispute Settlement Understanding. The last two listed have not been the focus of much of the U.S. commentary over the last several years but reflect additional concerns with the Appellate Body’s conduct. The first issue goes to decisions where the Appellate Body has ignored the clear Dispute Settlement Understanding requirement to recommend a party bring its actions into conformity with its WTO obligations where during the pendency of a dispute the Member alleged to be acting inconsistent with WTO obligations withdraws the measure in question. Report at 64-68. The second deals with situations where the Appellate Body has articulated how WTO bodies should carry out their functions even though the functioning of various WTO bodies is not an area properly before the Appellate Body. Report at 69-74. A third additional issue that is not listed in the Executive Summary but is in the full report (Report at 74-80) is “The Appellate Body Has Departed from WTO Rules by Deeming Decisions Not Made under Article IX:2 to Be Authoritative Interpretations of Covered Agreements”.

A major part of the Report is a review of selected Appellate Body decisions which have incorrectly interpreted various WTO Agreements and have thus either created obligations or reduced rights of the United States (and other Members). See pages 81 – 119. The opening paragraphs of this part of the Report summarize the concerns (page 81):

“In addition to failing to follow the rules that WTO Members have adopted, the Appellate Body has erroneously interpreted and applied numerous important WTO agreements. The Appellate Body has overreached on substantive issues, engaged in impermissible gap-filling, and read into
the WTO agreements rights or obligations that are not there.

“The texts of the covered agreements result from extensive negotiations among sovereign nations and autonomous customs territories, and reflect differing negotiating objectives and positions. It is often possible to reach agreement on only one particular obligation or discipline while being unable to reach agreement on any obligation or discipline even in a related area. As such, ‘gaps’ in the text of a covered agreement may simply reflect a situation where there was a limit upon what negotiators could agree. WTO Members have not agreed to delegate to WTO adjudicative bodies the task of filling in gaps in the covered agreements, and it is critical for WTO
adjudicators to respect these limits.

“Despite this, the Appellate Body has expanded its own power and attempted to substitute for negotiators to re-write, reduce or supplement the agreed text. Among other interpretive errors, the Appellate Body has engaged in impermissible gap-filling and read into the text of the covered agreements obligations or rights that are not present in the text. This conduct is inconsistent with the Appellate Body’s role and adds to or diminishes Members’ rights and obligations, contrary to Articles 3.2 and 19.2 of the DSU.”

Five examples are reviewed at length, including four that address issues from trade remedy agreements (Subsidies and Countervailing Measures; Anti-Dumping; Safeguards) and one that involves the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement. Moreover, four additional decisions are referenced in footnote 195:

“195 For example, this Report does not discuss the dispute US – Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act Of 2000, in which the Appellate Body’s interpretation of the Subsidies Agreement in effect created a new category of prohibited subsidies that was neither negotiated nor agreed to by WTO Members; or other examples, such as US – Gambling, US – Cotton, US – FSC.”

The problem of the Appellate Body (or panels) creating obligations or diminishing rights not contained in the various agreements of the WTO is not limited to these nine cases where the U.S. has raised serious concerns but has included concerns raised by many trading partners. In a paper prepared for the Asia Society Policy Institute in early 2018, I reviewed excerpts from various Dispute Settlement Body meetings where various WTO Members raised concerns about creating obligations or diminishing rights. The paper is enclosed below.

Final-Asia-Society-Paper-re-dispute-settlement

Conclusion

The fundamental questions facing the WTO membership on the dispute settlement system are whether Members will agree to conform the dispute settlement system to the limited role envisioned at its creation in 1995 and restore balance to the Agreements that were negotiated. The United States has laid out its case that a limited role for the Appellate Body was all that was intended and all that the U.S. supports. Many Members have seen the deviation from the Dispute Settlement Understanding but have looked the other way or even encouraged the expansion of the deviation for a variety of reasons, not least of which is achieving through disputes what wasn’t achieved through negotiations. Without a resolution acceptable to the United States, the WTO dispute settlement system will struggle to regain its full measure of legitimacy and there will be no restoration of an Appellate Body.

WTO Reform – Developments from Davos and What Might Be on U.S. Agenda

This year’s World Economic Forum had the usual side meetings of trade ministers and an unexpected meeting between President Trump and WTO Director-General Azevêdo. Trade ministers are discussing what needs to be accomplished ahead of the 12th Ministerial Conference (“MC12”) to be held in Kazakhstan in June 2020 with a focus on how to achieve agreement on fisheries subsidies to address illegal, unrecorded and unregulated fishing and overfishing and hence deliver on the UN sustainable development goal 14.6 during 2020. There are, of course, many other issues potentially on the agenda for MC12.

The potentially more interesting development out of Davos was the meeting between President Trump and DG Azevêdo. The President and the Director-General spoke about the meeting and need for WTO reform at a press conference the President held before leaving Davos. Here is the relevant exchange:

“[President Trump]: One of the people that was very important for me to meet from the World Trade Organization is Roberto Azevêdo. And he is a highly respected man. He happens to be this gentleman right here. I
thought I’d have him say a few words.

“But the World Trade Organization — as you know, I’ve had a dispute running with them for quite a while, because our country hasn’t been treated fairly. China is viewed as a developing nation.

“India is viewed as a developing nation. We’re not viewed a developing nation. As far as I’m concerned, we’re a developing nation, too. But they got tremendous advantages by the fact that they were considered “developing” and we weren’t. And they shouldn’t be. But if they are, we are.

“And we’re talking about a whole new structure for the deal, or we’ll have to do something. But the World Trade Organization has been very unfair to the United States for many, many years. And without it, China wouldn’t be China, and China wouldn’t be where they are right now. I mean, China — that was the vehicle that they used. And I give them great credit. And I also don’t give the people that were in my position great credit, because, frankly, they let that all happen. But the vehicle was the World Trade Organization.
And Roberto and I have a tremendous relationship, and we’re going to do something that I think will be very dramatic. He’ll be coming with a lot of his representatives to Washington sometime — maybe next week or the week after — and we’ll start working on it.

“So I’d like to introduce, just for — briefly — Roberto, and say a few words on behalf of the WTO. And then I’m going to introduce Larry Kudlow to say exactly where we are, in terms of our economy. Some of you know, but we’ve had some tremendous numbers just over the very recent past.

“So, please, Roberto.

“DIRECTOR-GENERAL AZEVÊDO: Well, thank you, Mr. President. And I think it’s fair to say that we have been saying, for quite some time, that if the multilateral system, if the WTO is to deliver and perform its role in today’s global economy, it has to be updated. It has to be changed. It has to be
reformed.

“This is an agenda that is squarely before members. I don’t think anybody in Geneva misses the point. I think they understand that the — the system has not been functioning properly in many areas. That’s something that we’re trying to address.

“I’m very happy that, in the conversation today with President Trump, he agreed that this is something that needs to happen; the WTO has to change. We are committed to effect those changes. And this is something we are serious about.

“And I am going to be, together with President Trump, as soon as possible, discussing what needs to change, what needs to be effected in the WTO, and we are committed to doing that.

“And, of course, I will be talking to all of the other WTO members, making sure that they all understand that this is serious. This is a path that we all have to be on together if we want to make the WTO relevant and performing to today’s requirements, frankly.

“So thank you very much, Mr. President. It’s an honor to be with you and with everybody else.

“Thank you.”

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-press-conference-davos-switzerland/

U.S. Objectives for WTO Reform – Articulated and Possible

In the first three years of the Trump Administration, the Administration has identified a range of areas for reform and provided some specifics as well as identifying areas of key negotiating interest.

Dispute Settlement

WTO dispute settlement reform has been a top priority for the Administration with a wide range of issues of importance but an overriding issue of preventing panels and the Appellate Body from creating rights or obligations not contained in the negotiated agreements. This is also an area of priority for other WTO members for the different reason of wanting to get the Appellate Body functioning again. While the U.S. has not articulated specifics in terms of what type of reform is needed, the problem areas are clear. The U.S. position has been that the existing DSU text is clear and that proposals to date do nothing more than restate the existing requirements. Without understanding why the system has deviated from the plain language of the DSU, it is not possible to identify the reforms that are needed has been the Administration’s position. Much has been written about this area and one can assume it will be an important part of the upcoming discussions between the Administration and the WTO Secretariat. Broader reform of the WTO is unlikely if reform of the dispute settlement system isn’t achieved. It would be unacceptable to many WTO Members not to find a solution to the dispute settlement system.

Improved transparency

Much of the value of the WTO flows from the requirement of WTO Members to provide notifications on a wide range of topics, notifications which are important for other WTO Members to understand what trading partners are doing and whether there are potential WTO problems with the actions of particular trading partners.

Unfortunately, many WTO Members have failed to file required notifications in a timely manner, and, in many cases, notifications that are filed are demonstrably incorrect. In the areas of subsidies, the United States has over the past decade filed counternotifications on subsidy programs on China and India believing that the notifications submitted by those two countries were woefully incomplete. The counternotifications were an effort to identify the magnitude of the problem of under reporting.

While the WTO Secretariat has been tasked with providing periodic updates on notifications by Members, the present system has no consequences for failure to file notifications in a timely manner or for filing incomplete notifications.

How to address the transparency issue is of importance to many WTO Members. Indeed, lack of transparency and full notifications can complicate efforts to move specific issues forward. For example, the United States has raised concerns about the lack of information on cotton subsidies from China and India within the discussions on addressing concerns of cotton producting Members in Africa.

The U.S. and other countries have put forward proposals on modifying notification requirements and potential consequences for failure to keep notifications up to date. Because of the importance to the overall operation of the WTO, one can expect some effort in any reform package to ensure greater likelihood of notification requirements being met in fact.

Who gets Special and Differential Treatment under New Agreements

During the history of the GATT and the WTO to date, whether a Member was a developing country was a matter of self-selection, and, as a result, there have never been criteria that would help Members decide on eligibility. Nor has the organization had any system for graduating Members as their economies grew. Over the years, this has led to the situation where some of the wealthiest countries, largest exporting countries and others have maintained developing country status and hence taken lower levels of commitments through special and differential treatment provisions contained in agreements for developing countries.

As the comments of President Trump indicate, the United States has felt that the WTO system has permitted a number of countries not to assume responsibilities commensurate with their state of development and importance to the global trading system.

The United States has put forward proposals to have various countries, based on objective criteria, be ineligible for special and differential treatment for new agreements. Three WTO Members have indicated that they will not seek special and differential treatment in future agreements, though not agreeing that they are not developing countries — Korea, Singapore and Brazil.

While the need to have advanced economies carry their weight as part of the system would seem to be obvious, this is a highly sensitive issue where a number of major economies will fight hard against modifications of the current system. China, India and South Africa are three who have opposed any changes.

Obviously there has been some positive movement by the actions of three WTO Members. At a minimum, hopefully more Members will make similar commitments. And the United States has indicated that special and differential treatment provisions will not be agreed to in future agreements if certain countries don’t opt out of receiving such benefits. Thus, this issue will be an important and ongoing one that will generate a great deal of debate within the WTO and, hopefully, a meaningful advancement through its outcome. As the United States has indicated in statements at the WTO’s General Council, failure of many Members to carry their proper weight in liberalization has frustrated the ability of the WTO’s negotiating function to achieve the types of success that the system needs.

Update Rules to Address Different Economic Systems

For the United States, the European Union and other countries, the GATT and now WTO rules were written for and are applicable to market economies. WTO Members with different economic systems historically were not significant players in the global economy or when they joined the GATT or WTO undertook obligations which held the promise of the Member’s economy shifting to market economy principles.

The rise in importance of non-market economies like China engaged in different versions of state capitalism has created major challenges for the global trading system and for the viability of the WTO. The size and extent of industrial subsidies, forced technology transfer, role of state-owned and state-invested enterprises, state planning and resulting massive global excess capacity and targeting of technologies are just a few of the challenges market economy countries around the world have been confronting. Existing WTO rules don’t adequately address the many distortions flowing from the actions of the WTO members with non-market economies.

The United States, European Union and Japan announced an initiative at the 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires to address some of these issues. They recently released a joint statement outlining actions needed on industrial subsidies in particular.

The United States has also indicated that there is need for the WTO to address the disconnect that flows from major economies being within the WTO without being market economies.

While one would hope that a major trading nation, like China, who has benefitted enormously from WTO membership would understand the need for their to be an understanding on how different economic systems can coexist and rules to deal with major distortions or differences, this is an area where it is hard to see meaningful reform under a consensus system such as that used in the WTO.

Updated Rule Book to Address Current Commercial Realities

The Uruguay Round was the last major update of the global trading system’s rule book and occurred over 1986-1994. Technology and the organization of much of business today is dramatically different than the world that existed in the 1980s. There are few rules within the WTO dealing with electronic commerce. The plurilateral effort underway to come up with rules for the e-commerce field is important and long overdue.

Similarly, the world is facing issues of critical importance to the maintenance of food supplies, commercial activity and survival of islands, coast lines and much more. For example, more than one third of fish species are overfished. The oceans of the world are suffering massive pollution with waste areas in some locations being the size of states or smaller countries. Similarly, water temperatures are rising and weather patterns are shifting with consequent effects on agricultural productivity, on human and animal health and much more.

A few of these issues are being pursued within the WTO at the present time, including fisheries subsidies (negotiations now in their 19th year) and the plurilateral talks on e-commerce. Other topics are receiving consideration as well including domestic regulation of services, facilitating investment, the role of women and of small and medium sized enterprises.

Much more can and should be done to address the changes we are currently facing and that can be predicted. Where trade is affected, the WTO should have an important role. But a system that takes decades to work through a single issue, like fishery subsidies, will need a serious review as to how to permit much more timely responses and rule setting that can be ahead of the curve.

Free Trade Agreements and MFN

While Article XXIV of GATT 1994 deals with customs unions and regional trade agreements, the reality is that there are now hundreds of free trade agreements that have been negotiated and are in place of various breadth and different levels of coverage. While such agreements can permit countries to address bilaterally or plurilaterally issues not covered by the WTO, there is no doubt that free trade agreements lead to significant trade diversion as large volumes of trade are done at tariff rates that are more advantageous that the most favored nation rates negotiated during the GATT rounds. For some countries, the bulk of their trade may be at non-MFN rates. Do such facts favor additional efforts at bilateral or plurilateral liberalization even if not on an MFN basis?

Moreover, as many WTO members are opting not to contribute to further liberalization on new topics, there is the challenge of Members willing to liberalize providing benefits to non-participating members. While this is not a new problem, WTO reform may need to explore whether MFN has continuing relevance in a world of bilateral and plurilateral deals and/or whether plurilateral deals on topics not presently covered by WTO agreements should permit participating Members only to be the beneficiaries of the texts.

Conclusion

Other countries have raised a series of topics that they would like to see addressed in WTO reform talks that are not addressed in this note. What is clear is that if the United States is going to find satisfaction in a WTO reform effort, some major changes to the system will be needed. Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff had indicated in the past that WTO reform by 2025 was possible (looking at being ready for adoption by the 15th WTO Ministerial). https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/ddgaw_13nov19_e.htm That timeline, while ambitious for the WTO based on past experience, is almost certainly unacceptable to the current U.S. Administration.

WTO Reform – Joint Statement of January 14, 2020 of Japan, the U.S. and the EU

At the last WTO Ministerial Conference held in December 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the U.S., the EU and Japan announced efforts to cooperate to develop WTO reforms to address concerns in areas such as industrial excess capacity, massive government subsidies, state owned enterprises, forced technology transfers, local content requirements and other matters. The joint statement released on December 12, 2017 is included in a press release from USTR and is reproduced below:

“Joint Statement by the United States, European Union and Japan at MC11

“12/12/2017

“Mrs. Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Trade, Mr. Hiroshige Seko, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan and Ambassador Robert E. Lighthizer, United States Trade Representative met in Buenos Aires, Argentine Republic on the 12th of December 2017 and agreed to strengthen our commitment to ensure a global level playing field.

“They said:

“We shared the view that severe excess capacity in key sectors exacerbated by government-financed and supported capacity expansion, unfair competitive conditions caused by large market-distorting subsidies and state owned enterprises, forced technology transfer, and local content requirements and preferences are serious concerns for the proper functioning of international trade, the creation of innovative technologies and the sustainable growth of the global economy.

“We, to address this critical concern, agreed to enhance trilateral cooperation in the WTO and in other forums, as appropriate, to eliminate these and other unfair market distorting and protectionist practices by third countries.”

Japan, the EU and the U.S. have had a series of meeting over the last two years to seek agreement amongst themselves on reforms to the WTO to address the areas covered by the joint statement. There have also been other areas of cooperation including on working towards a more robust set of notification requirements and on how advanced developing countries can better contribute to the WTO by taking on full commitments and by not participating in special and differential treatment under new agreements or new negotiations.

On January 14, 2020, officials from Japan, the EU and the U.S. issued a joint statement that lays out some of the reforms, most in the area of subsidy disciplines, that the three have been able to agree on. While they are still working on proposed text, it is expected that the three major WTO Members will start an outreach process to broaden the support for the proposals. The USTR Press Release which contains the joint statement is attached below.

Joint-Statement-of-the-Trilateral-Meeting-of-the-Trade-Ministers-of-Japan-the-United-States-and-the-European-Union-_-United-States-Trade-Representative

One can expect a busy 2020 in Geneva and in capitals around the world as proposals for WTO reform are vetted with various members and the topics get taken up in the WTO. While it is unlikely that any significant movement will occur by the 12th WTO Ministerial scheduled for early June 2020 in Kazakhstan, the topic of WTO reform has seen increased interest and activity throughout 2019.

What are the proposed increased disciplines on subsidies?

Prohibited Subsidies

Industrial subsidies have been the focus of the trilateral discussions. The Joint Statement recommends expanding the list of prohibited subsidies in Article 3.1 of the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Duty Measures (“ASCM”) to include the following four categories (and have indicated that they are still exploring whether additional categories should be added):

  1. “unlimited guarantees”;
  2. “subsidies to an insolvent or ailing enterprise in the absence of a credible restructuring plan”;
  3. “subsidies to enterprises unable to obtain long-term financing or investment from independent commercial sources operating in sectors or industries in overcapacity”;
  4. “certain direct forgiveness of debt”.

These types of subsidies have been major concerns in a number of industries and certainly would pertain to China, but would be applicable to all Members.

Reversal of burden on certain actionable subsidies

The Joint Statement also recommends reversing the burden of proof on certain actionable subsidies that are not prohibited but where the three Members believe the types of subsidies can cause significant harm to competing producers in other countries. The proposal would impose on the subsidizing Member the burden of demonstrating “that there are no serious negative trade or capacity effects and that there is effective transparency about the subsidy in question.” While the list of such subsidies is still being developed, the list currently includes four categories:

  1. “excessively large subsidies”;
  2. “subsidies that prop up uncompetitive firms and prevent their exit from the market”;
  3. “subsidies creating massive manufacturing capacity, without private commercial participation”; and
  4. “subsidies that lower input prices domestically in comparison to prices of the same goods when destined for export.”

China has been pouring vast subsidies into a range of manufacturing sectors, has created massive excess capacity in dozens of industries, has created “zombie” companies which are prevented from exiting the market, and engages in various practices which have the effect of lowering input prices domestically far below world prices. Similar problems have been experienced with other trading partners as well.

Additional example of serious prejudice

The joint statement also reviews the desire to expand the situations in which serious prejudice under Article 6.3 of the ASCM should be found. The joint statement proposes adding a provision that serious prejudice would exist where the subsidy under investigation distorts capacity. Again, while such a provision would be applicable to all WTO Members, it would obviously be important for economies with the large state role such as China.

Other subsidy proposals

There are three other important proposals contained in the joint statement.

First, the serious problem of inadequate notifications is addressed by proposing that any non-notified subsidies will be treated as prohibited subsidies where other WTO Members provide a counter-notification unless all required information is provided by the subsidizing Member within a certain period of time. The U.S. has provided counter-notifications of subsidies on China and on India in the past. There is still a belief that large numbers of subsidies are not reported by these two countries and others. Lack of complete notifications hampers the ability of trading partners to understand the competitive environment and whether particular Members are acting consistent with their ASCM obligations.

Second, the joint statement addresses one of the challenges flowing from the existing ASCM and dispute settlement decisions, namely the lack of clarity for determining benchmarks for evaluating whether benefits are provided when the home market is distorted. The U.S. and others have gone out of country in certain circumstances, and WTO disputes have limited options for investigating authorities. This has proven to be an important issue in countervailing duty cases looking at subsidies for a number of countries, though China is obviously a major concern. Clarification is very much needed.

Third, the joint statement proposed ensuring that subsidies provided by state owned enterprises can be captured by the term “public body” in ASCM Article 1.1(a)(1). Such clarification is needed in light of a WTO dispute settlement decision which limited the scope of public body. All WTO members with significant state-owned and state-invested enterprises would be affected. Again, China is a major focus of the concern.

Forced Technology Transfer

Forced technology transfer has been a matter of concern for all three of the trilateral Members issuing the joint statement. The joint statement reviews the harm such actions have on other trading partners but does not provide a proposal as yet on what steps need to be taken, including on enforcement. Obviously, as far as China is concerned, these concerns have been a central part of the Section 301 investigation and actions by the U.S. Administration and is reportedly being addressed in one of the chapters in the Phase 1 Agreement that will be signed on January 15. It is not clear if the EU, Japan and the U.S. will be looking to multilateralize whatever provisions the United States has negotiated with China into the WTO.

Other items mentioned in the joint statement

Japan, the EU and the United States have been active on a range of other reform issues and agreed to continue to cooperate on them going forward. There are four items flagged:

  1. “the importance of market oriented conditions for a free, fair, and mutually advantageous trading system”;
  2. “reform of the WTO, to include increasing WTO Member compliance with existing WTO notification obligations and pressing advanced WTO Members claiming developing country status to undertake full commitments in ongoing and future WTO negotiations”;
  3. “international rule-making on trade-related aspects of electronic commerce at the WTO”; and
  4. international forums such as the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity and the Governments/Authorities’ Meeting on Semiconductors.”

The WTO system was built by market economy countries and does not address many of the distortions that “state capitalism” such as that practiced by China creates. While proposals such as those on subsidies can address (potentially) some of the distortions that state capitalism systems create, pursuing greater coherence to market economy principles is undoubtedly to the benefit of global trade. If very different economic systems are to continue to coexist, major reform to the WTO will be needed to have any hope of reciprocal trade happening, and such trade may well need to be managed in part.

The second group of issues have been being pursued by the U.S. aggressively in Geneva and bilaterally with the support of various countries. Korea, Singapore and Brazil have all agreed not to seek special and differential treatment in future negotiations or agreements.

For the WTO to remain relevant going forward it needs to be able to address major changes in the global trade environment. The importance of e-commerce is one such example. The plurilateral negotiations that are underway by many WTO members need to be both ambitious and reach an early conclusion.

China has walked away from the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity without a resolution to the serious global excess capacity problem largely created by China. Separately, a recent OECD report on subsidies to the semiconductor industry globally shows the importance of addressing the challenges in that sector on a comprehensive basis to avoid massive distortions in outcomes. OECD (2019), “Measuring distortions in international markets: The semiconductor value chain”, OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 234, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/8fe4491d-en.

Conclusion

The joint statement released today has an importance beyond the specific proposals it contains. It demonstrates that Japan, the EU and the U.S. have a large set of issues on which there is a common vision and willingness to work together for the good of the global system. The proposals on additional subsidy disciplines address real shortfalls in the existing ASCM and reflect the emergence of subsidy practices by state-capital countries like China that need to be addressed. They also identify important corrections to WTO dispute settlement decisions that need to be made to permit the ASCM to function as intended.

Many countries have concerns with forced technology transfer practices of some countries. While hopefully the U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement to be signed on January 15, 2020 will provide a roadmap for a successful approach to these issues, the trilateral efforts will be important to multilateralize an approach that will address all permutations of forced technology transfer that are identified by Members.

Finally, the WTO has gone through its first 25 years and is in need of significant reforms to remain relevant as global trade moves forward. The issues covered by the Joint Statement represent a good group of issue to breathe life back into the WTO.

The World Trade Organization in Crisis – the Last Two Months of the Appellate Body Absent Reform Is Just One Example

The World Trade Organization currently has 164 members (countries and customs territories), with an additional 22 countries in the process of pursuing accession.  While the WTO has attracted a lot of interest and greatly increased membership since its start in 1995, it is an organization in trouble and of diminishing relevance despite its important role and broad membership.  While the challenges facing the WTO dispute settlement system are an obvious example of an unresolved problem, dispute settlement is by no means the only area of concern.

Challenges with the Negotiations Function

Historically, the most important function of the WTO’s predecessor, the GATT, was negotiating reductions in tariffs and other trade barriers.  With a much broader membership under the WTO and with divergent economic systems for some major players from the historic market-based model,  the negotiating function has been seriously hampered and the rules-based system does not adequately address differences in economic systems.  While there have been some successes in expanding liberalization (e.g., information technology agreement, trade facilitation, agriculture export subsidy commitments), the consensus based approach and different interests of various major participants has largely prevented the WTO from maintaining a system reflecting current global issues and technologies and the differences in economic systems, with members relying on other vehicles to address pressing issues.

Members are attempting to reach agreement on limiting fisheries subsidies (now in the 18th year of negotiations) by the end of 2019 against a background of a continuing worsening of the overfishing problem globally.  Moreover, discussions on broader reform within the WTO have been being held over the last year or two, including efforts to restore vitality to the Committee process through improved notifications (see below) and addressing some of the practices of different economic systems that are destabilizing global markets in a wide range of products.  The likelihood of any significant breakthrough on fundamental reform seems implausible in light of the dramatically different interests of key members and the need for consensus.

Challenges to the Committee Oversight Function

A second function of the GATT and now the WTO has been a committee process that is supposed to permit Members to monitor the activities of other members through various notification requirements and an ability to identify current concerns and potentially identify solutions acceptable to the broader membership.  While the committee structure exists, notifications are spotty at best and the committee process has been reduced in importance for most of the first 25 years of the WTO through lack of focus by participating Members and other reasons.  There are committees which appear to have functioned reasonably well over periods of time, but this critical aspect of the WTO is not making the contributions that it could and should make.

Time is Running Out for the Appellate Body’s Continued Functioning

The third core area of the WTO is dispute settlement.  While there have been hundreds of disputes during the first 25 years of the WTO and while most Members are supportive of the system, there is a continuing crisis that flows from a core departure by the Appellate Body from the agreement that established the system, the Dispute Settlement Understanding (“DSU”).  While many/most of the Appellate Body decisions are accepted by most/all countries, fundamental concerns with a system at odds with the agreed purpose of dispute settlement have been raised by the United States for more than 17 years (and indeed flow from Appellate Body actions stretching back close to 20 years). A core problem is the lack of effective ability of Member states to correct erroneous decisions of the Appellate Body which has meant that a system intended to help Members resolve disputes between themselves has instead turned into a system where rights and obligations are not a reflection of agreements but rather the views of the Appellate Body members.

While there are important Members who are happy with a system where rights and obligations are identified by the Appellate Body whether or not trading partners agreed to such obligations or rights, the creation of rights and obligations through dispute settlement is a fundamental departure from the agreed terms of the Dispute Settlement Understanding and is unacceptable to the United States.  As no appeal can be heard where there are not at least three members of the Appellate Body, the Appellate Body will cease to operate (at least temporarily) after December 10, 2019, when the number of Appellate Body members declines from three to just one.

The United States has gone to extraordinary lengths over the last year or more to both identify its concerns and chronicle the history of the development of the issues.  Some Members have made proposals to address one or more U.S. concerns through modifications to the DSU or through other means. But the proposals to date have failed to address the question raised by the U.S. as to why the Appellate Body has been willing to depart from the requirements of the DSU in the first place.  Without understanding that question, why would modifications to the DSU result in a correction of action by the Appellate Body going forward?

The last Dispute Settlement Body meeting was held on September 30, and there was no resolution of the concerns of the U.S.  at that meeting.  There are future meetings (before December 10) presently scheduled for October 14 and November 22.  There does not appear to be any realistic scenario in which there is a resolution before December 10, which will result in the Appellate Body ceasing to operate until there is a resolution.

Some countries – the European Union and Canada – have agreed to create an “arbitration” substitute for disputes between themselves and can be expected to seek agreement with other Members.  See JOB/DSB/1/Add. 11.  Members have the right now to agree to arbitration in lieu of the panel or Appellate Body system.  DSU Art. 25.  The proposal by the EU and Canada has already resulted in questions from the U.S. not on whether arbitration among willing Members is permitted but whether, inter alia, the specific agreement between the EU and Canada exceeds the limits of the DSU by making arbitration decisions among willing Members somehow more than a resolution between the parties themselves.      

Conclusion

USTR Lighthizer has indicated that the world would need to create something like the WTO if it didn’t exist.  The U.S. under the Trump Administration just as under prior Administrations, has worked hard within the WTO to identify issues of concern and seek forward movement.  Therefore it is not a correct reading of the actions of the United States to suggest that the U.S. is not supportive of the WTO.

An organization that sovereign states subscribe to and adhere to and that can address a rapidly changing world environment for the benefit of all participants is what the WTO is supposed to be.  Without important reforms, unfortunately, the WTO will become less and less relevant to global commerce and to the lives of people around the world.   It is the responsibility of the WTO Members to identify and adopt the changes that are needed to achieve the reforms needed to keep the WTO relevant.  That takes leadership and an ability of the major players to understand what current economic realities prevent acceptable solutions.  

 Unfortunately, taking the dispute settlement situation as an exemplar, major players are failing to address the departures from the DSU that have caused such concerns for the United States for the last two decades.  That approach simply ensures a diminished relevance for the WTO and increased conflict between trading partners.