Endorsing the U.S. Trade Complaint Against China

On Friday, the U.S. Trade Representative initiated a formal challenge of various Chinese tax programs within the dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization. It was only the third formal challenge of Chinese policies since that country joined the WTO in 2001.

Specifically, the United States alleges that Chinese tax policies that encourage production for exportation and that discourage the use of imported materials and components in the production process constitute subsidies that harm U.S. interests and violate the obligations China undertook when it joined the WTO in 2001.

I have been critical of the administration’s various trade policy errors of commission and omission over the years. Last week I lamented U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab’s failure to articulate the broad case for trade.  Today, I have only kudos for the USTR. Not only was the United States well within its rights to bring this case, it was the right thing to do, politically and economically. 

Free trade purists might disagree, arguing that if China wants to subsidize its exports to the United States, Americans should write the Chinese thank you letters for financially supporting our consumption. And accordingly, we shouldn’t intervene if the Chinese want to squander their resources that way. I think that argument holds water up to a point — a point that we are well beyond and where the costs of the status quo outweigh its benefits. 

Yes, we benefit as consumers from subsidized Chinese production, but only until the consensus for a liberal trading order collapses. At that point, retrograde protectionism threatens not only the benefits of that subsidized consumption, but the benefits of trade more generally, and the conditions that make relatively freer trade possible. Furthermore, the U.S. trade relationship with China is wealth-creating in both countries without need of subsidization. Safeguarding continuation of the flow of the benefits of trade to both countries by expecting China (and the United States) to play by the established rules seems a reasonable compromise to me.

The rules-based trading system has been remarkably successful at promoting trade and investment, and its continued success depends upon adherence to its rules and respect for its institutions — particularly by the world’s large economies.

China has demonstrated that it doesn’t respond well to bilateral threats — if for no other reason than its desire to avoid the appearance of being bullied. China knows what its obligations are. But it also knows that one of the many benefits of its membership in the WTO is that its policies are above board unless and until the dispute settlement body of the WTO finds against them. If China wants to drag its feet with respect to compliance and reform, bringing cases against China within the WTO might become fashionable.  

We are already witnessing a deterioration of support for trade and its institutions in the United States precisely because of perceptions that policymakers are doing too little to enforce the existing rules. I don’t advocate knee-jerk invocation of our rights to dispute settlement — there is plenty of room for deliberation and consultation (which is perpetually in play under the radar). 

To the extent that Friday’s actions serve as a release valve for some of the political pressure that has been building in Congress for unilateral actions against China, it is already a success. By bringing the case through formal WTO channels, Congress will see that there are, in fact, alternatives to dangerous, unilateral sanctions. In that sense, this case could reduce the likelihood that Congress intervenes and mucks everything up and it could actually improve long-term prospects for the U.S.-China trade relationship.