Congress Poised to Escalate the U.S.-China Trade War

U.S. policymakers hold the key to vastly improved economic relations with China.  They also have the key to the vehicle that will take the bilateral relationship over the cliff, which appears to be the route that has been chosen. Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp will introduce legislation this afternoon that makes explicit the applicability of the U.S. Countervailing Duty (anti-subsidy) law to imports from countries considered to have “Non-Market Economies” (i.e., China and Vietnam). 

Maybe that’s not as obvious an example of escalation as Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, but it is very likely to accelerate the deterioration of U.S.-China economic relations.  Costs will rise and life will become more difficult for U.S. companies trying to do business in China, as well as for U.S. producers and consumers who rely on imports from China.

Those pushing the legislation don’t want the public to understand the issues, which are highly technical and legalistic (and, quite frankly, too much trouble for our legislators to think through, particularly when there’s only political upside in China-bashing). But the consequences will be felt broadly – and there’s danger in that – so let me attempt to boil the matter down to a few salient points.

The U.S. government considers China a non-market economy for purposes of how it applies the antidumping law.  Certain outdated assumptions about prices, wages, and interest rates being unreliable and fictitious in non-market economies result in China being subject to a punitive antidumping calculation methodology – the NME methodology – by the U.S. Commerce Department.  Under the terms of the treaty by which China joined the World Trade Organization back in 2001, the United States must end the NME designation by no later than December, 2016, which means that China will then be subject to the still-onerous, but less-punitive, market-economy methodology.

The United States also has a Countervailing Duty law, which for 22 years up until 2007 had not been applied to imports from countries that, for purposes of the antidumping law, were deemed NMEs.  In not applying the CVD law to NMEs during that period, the Commerce Department was being consistent: if prices and other market signals are unreliable or fictitious in Country A for purposes of antidumping determinations, then they cannot be reliable of useable for purposes of measuring the benefits of subsidies in Country A in CVD cases. 

For political purposes, that logic suddenly ceased to apply in 2007, when Commerce changed its policy and began initiating CVD cases against NMEs.  Today, the U.S. government has 24 separate CVD orders in place on various imports from China (in addition to 5 cases pending determinations).  In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that it is illegal for the United States to apply its countervailing duty law to NMEs because Congress’s intent had been subsumed in the policies of multiple administrations to not apply the law to NMEs, and reinforced by the fact that there had been substantial revisions to the trade laws during that 22-year period – a period during which Congress did not make CVD application to NMEs explicit. (Scott Lincicome is the authority on the background and legal interpretation of the “GPX” case.)

Excluding legal appeals (which take us to the same decision tree if the CAFC decision is upheld), the Obama administration has three choices.  First, it can abide the CAFC decision, revoke the 24 existing CVD measures, drop the pending cases, and initiate no more CVD investigations against NME countries. Second, it can do what it is doing: work with Congress to pass a new law making CVD explicitly applicable to NMEs, which will be perceived by Beijing as taking extraordinary measures to punish China, which will invite blatant and subtle forms of retaliation from the Chinese government against U.S. interests and produce numerous lawsuits over the myriad legal issues stemming from the acts of preserving 24 CVD measures imposed under a law that has been found to be illegal.  Third, it can graduate China to “market economy” status now, instead of waiting until 2016.  Option three requires no legislative action whatsoever, preserves domestic industry access to both the AD and CVD laws, and wins enormous amounts of goodwill from Beijing.

From the perspective of a free trader, the first option is best.  But its likelihood can be measured in terms of hundredths of a percentage point.  The second option, which leaves use of the CVD law as well as applicability of the NME methodology of the AD law to China in tact, is the worst.  The third option preserves access to the CVD law, as well as the antidumping law, for U.S. protection-seekers, but requires the Commerce Department to use the market economy methodology in cases involving China.

Option three is the great compromise.  It makes antidumping actions against China slightly less onerous for U.S. consumers and Chinese producers, but domestic industries still have access to both laws.  That’s not great for consumers, consuming-industries, or free-traders on its face, but it would be considered a sufficiently decent gesture of good will by Beijing that it could stop and possibly reverse declining relations.  And that could head off a destructive trade war and be the catalyst for considerably more trans-Pacific cooperation resolving issues that adversely affect consumers, producers, workers and investors in both countries, and beyond.

Unfortunately, dark clouds are gathering as pursuit of that path seems less likely this afternoon.