Last week a WTO dispute settlement panel ruled that certain Chinese restrictions on exports of “rare earth” minerals are inconsistent with China’s WTO obligations and recommended that the PRC government bring its policies into compliance with the rules. The decision was hardly surprising, as export restrictions are prohibited under the WTO agreements – except under certain limited circumstances, which were not demonstrated to exist.
Formal complaints about these export restrictions were lodged in the WTO by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, whose manufacturers require rare earth minerals for production of a variety of high tech products, including flat-screen televisions, smart phones, and hybrid automobile batteries. By restricting exports, the complainants alleged, China’s actions reduce supply and raise prices abroad, putting foreign downstream manufacturers at a disadvantage vis-à-vis China’s domestic rare earth-using companies, who enjoy the effective subsidies of greater supply and lower input prices.
The WTO decision was lauded across Washington, but more for its dig on China than for its basis in principle or sound economics. Emblematic of official sentiment was the following statement from arch-import-foe-temporarily-turned-globalization-advocate, House Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI):
Through the aggressive efforts of the Obama Administration, the WTO has struck down China’s efforts to block our companies from having access to key inputs. Our high-tech industries, from smartphones to medical equipment to wind turbines, depend on access to these rare earths and other chemicals. Holding China accountable, and enforcing the rules of international trade are vital to U.S. businesses and workers and key to trade expansion efforts (emphasis added).
Between Paris and Brussels obstacles of many kinds exist. First of all, there is distance, which entails loss of time, and we must either submit to this ourselves, or pay another to submit to it. Then come rivers, marshes, accidents, bad roads, which are so many difficulties to be surmounted. We succeed in building bridges, in forming roads, and making them smoother by pavements, iron rails, etc. But all this is costly, and the commodity must be made to bear the cost. Then there are robbers who infest the roads, and a body of police must be kept up, etc.Now, among these obstacles there is one which we have ourselves set up, and at no little cost, too, between Brussels and Paris. There are men who lie in ambuscade along the frontier, armed to the teeth, and whose business it is to throw difficulties in the way of transporting merchandise from the one country to the other. They are called Customhouse officers, and they act in precisely the same way as ruts and bad roads.
The future of multilateral trade has presented some vexing questions for policy watchers over the past few years. With the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations hopelessly stalled and the proliferation of regional and bilateral agreements in its stead, contemplation and debate about the fate of the World Trade Organization, its successful adjudicatory body, international trade governance, and globalization have been all the rage.
The significance of the Bali deal depends on whom you ask. Those heavily vested in the current architecture of the multilateral system tend to hail Bali as proof that multilateral negotiations are back in business and that there is renewed promise for completing the long-stalled Doha Round. Frankly, taking 12 years to forge an agreement on trade facilitation (basically, reform of customs procedures, which constitutes a tiny fraction of the Doha Round’s objectives) plus some concessions to permit more subsidization of agriculture in the name of food security is not exactly convincing evidence that Doha Round negotiators have demonstrated their cost effectiveness or the utility of this approach.
Just in time for today’s release of my and Bill Watson’s new PA, “Regulatory Protectionism: A Hidden Threat to Free Trade” comes a feature article [$] in the specialist trade (in both senses of the word) publication, Inside U.S. Trade on the likely obstacles to a U.S-EU preferential trade agreement (a recent Cato event also hosted a discussion on this topic). And, in an inadvertent PR coup for us, it focusses almost entirely on how regulations and other non-tariff barriers (NTBs) in each economy might inhibit a successful result to negotiations:
The shifting nature of domestic policies and agricultural trade between the United States and the European Union over the last several decades means that while some traditional trade irritants are no longer present, others have been introduced that will likely prove difficult to unravel in the context of trans-Atlantic bilateral negotiations. Whereas bilateral trade irritants previously centered on export subsidies and competition in third markets for commodities like wheat, now the disagreements primarily relate to non-tariff barriers (NTBs), including divergent scientific standards, food safety regulations and other issues that are hindrances to bilateral trade… But the difficulty in negotiating these issues is that, because they ostensibly relate to consumer health and safety, governments cannot easily make “trade-offs,” as they can with tariffs. Observers believe that this is the chief reason that the talks over agriculture promise to be so difficult.
Indeed. As we discuss in our paper, tariffs and other conventional trade barriers have fallen over the years, so the barriers that remain are more regulatory in nature, and more sensitive to negotiate. What we’re essentially left with is the difficult issues. They get to the heart of national sovereignty and, on a practical level, require the participation of regulatory administrators who may have very little or no trade negotiation knowledge or experience. They also have little incentive to concede their power. Whereas trade negotiators are paid to, well, negotiate, regulators are paid to inhibit commerce. They face asymmetric rewards: a huge fuss if something goes wrong, not many kudos if they remove the reins and let commerce thrive. Under those conditions, it should be no surprise that they are risk-averse. So this trade agreement will not be easy to complete. In the meantime, though, there is much the United States can do to limit the ability of regulators to shackle the economy with burdensome—and potentially illegal—requirements that limit choice and expose American businesses to retaliatory sanctions. For example, ensure WTO obligations are taken seriously and adhered to. From our paper:
Prior to implementing a new regulation, federal agencies should be required to evaluate the possibility that less trade-restrictive alternatives could meet regulatory goals as effectively as their preferred proposal. Also, the U.S. government should not dilute or bypass the multilateral rules of the WTO through bilateral or regional negotiations that accept managed protectionism. This paper uses a number of recent examples of protectionist regulations to show that the enemies of regulatory protectionism are transparency and vigilance. Policymakers should be skeptical of regulatory proposals backed by the target domestic industry and of proposals that lack a plausible theory of market failure.
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. —Benjamin Franklin
Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE long have been in the crosshairs of U.S. policymakers. Rumors that the telecoms are or could become conduits for Chinese government-sponsored cyber espionage or cyber attacks on so-called critical infrastructure in the United States have been swirling around Washington for a few years. Concerns about Huawei’s alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army were plausible enough to cause the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to recommend that President Bush block a proposed acquisition by Huawei of 3Com in 2008. Subsequent attempts by Huawei to expand in the United States have also failed for similar reasons, and because of Huawei’s ham-fisted, amateurish public relations efforts.
So it’s not at all surprising that yesterday the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, yesterday, following a nearly year-long investigation, issued its “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE,” along with recommendations that U.S. companies avoid doing business with these firms.
But there is no smoking gun in the report, only innuendo sold as something more definitive. The most damning evidence against Huawei and ZTE is that the companies were evasive or incomplete when it came to providing answers to questions that would have revealed strategic information that the companies understandably might not want to share with U.S. policymakers, who may have the interests of their own favored U.S. telecoms in mind.
Again, what I see revealed here is inexperience and lack of political sophistication on the part of the Chinese telecoms. It was Huawei—seeking to repair its sullied name and overcome the numerous obstacles it continues to face in its efforts to expand its business in the United States—that requested the full investigation of its operations and ties, not anticipating adequately that the inquiries would put them on the spot. What they got from the investigation was an ultimatum: share strategic information about the company and its plans with U.S. policymakers or be deemed a threat to U.S. national security.
Now we have the House report—publicly fortified by a severely unbalanced 60 Minutes segment this past Sunday—to ratchet up the pressure for a more comprehensive solution. We’ve seen this pattern before: zealous lawmakers identifying imminent threats or gathering storms and then convincing the public that there are no alternatives to their excessive solutions. The public should note that fear imperils our freedoms and bestows greater powers on policymakers with their own agendas.
Granted, I’m no expert in cyber espionage or cyber security and one or both of these Chinese companies may be bad actors. But the House report falls well short of convincing me that either possesses or will deploy cyber weapons of mass destruction against critical U.S. infrastructure or that they are any more hazardous than Western companies utilizing the same or similar supply chains that traverse China or any other country for that matter. And the previous CFIUS recommendtions to the president to block Huawei acquisitions are classified.
Vulnerabilities in communications networks are ever-present and susceptible to insidious code, back doors, and malicious spyware regardless of where the components are manufactured. At best, shunning these two companies will provide a false sense of security.
What should raise red flags is that none of the findings in the House report have anything to do with specific cyber threats or cyber security, but merely reinforce what we already know about China: that its economy operates under a system of state-sponsored capitalism and that intellectual property theft is a larger problem there than it is in the United States.
And the report’s recommendations reveal more of a trade protectionist agenda than a critical infrastructure protection agenda. It states that CFIUS “must block acquisitions, takeovers, or mergers involving Huawei and ZTE given the threat to U.S. national security interests.” (Emphasis added.) What threat? It is not documented in the report.
The report recommends that government contractors “exclude ZTE or Huawei equipment in their systems.” U.S. network providers and systems developers are “strongly encouraged to seek other vendors for their projects.” And it recommends that Congress and the executive branch enforcement agencies “investigate the unfair trade practices of the Chinese telecommunications sector, paying particular attention to China’s continued financial support for key companies.” (Emphasis added.) Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
Though not made explicit in the report, some U.S. telecom carriers allegedly were warned by U.S. policymakers that purchasing routers and other equipment for their networks from Huawei or ZTE would disqualify them from participating in the massive U.S. government procurement market for telecom services. If true, that is not only heavy-handed, but seemingly strong grounds for a Chinese WTO challenge on the grounds of discriminatory treatment.
Before taking protectionist, WTO-illegal actions—such as banning transactions with certain foreign companies or even “recommending” forgoing such transactions—that would likely cause U.S. companies to lose business in China, the onus is on policymakers, the intelligence committees, and those otherwise in the know to demonstrate that there is a real threat from these companies and that they—U.S. policymakers—are not simply trying to advance the fortunes of their own constituent companies through a particularly insidious brand of industrial policy.
The Obama administration filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday alleging that the Chinese government is bestowing various prohibited subsidies upon Chinese automobile and auto parts producers to the tune of $1 billion and that Beijing is, accordingly, in violation of its commitments under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.
There are reasons to shake one’s head at this move, including the apparent hypocrisy it reveals of an administration that spins the $85 billion of subsidies it heaped upon two U.S. car companies and the United Autoworkers union as its chief economic accomplishment. Of course that figure doesn’t even include the $12-$14 billion in unorthodox tax breaks granted to GM under the bankruptcy terms; $17 billion in funds committed from the TARP to GM’s former financial arm GMAC (which received taxpayer support to facilitate GM auto sales); GM’s portion of the $25 billion Energy Department slush fund to underwrite research and development in green auto technology; and the $7,500 tax credit granted for every new purchase of a Chevy Volt, and more. (Full story here.)
To complain about $1 billion of Chinese subsidies is – shall we say – a bit rich.
Moreover, the filing of the WTO case reveals some of the unseemly perquisites of incumbency. A large concentration of the beneficiaries of the GM bailout resides in Ohio, a state that has had the administration’s strategic attention since its reelection campaign began in November 2008. But in case that largesse wasn’t enough to secure their support in November 2012, a large concentration of the beneficiaries of a successful U.S. WTO complaint also resides in Ohio, which is where – by Jove – the president was speaking when word of the WTO complaint became public.
It is all exasperating, no doubt.
But the bigger and more disconcerting story in all of this is the apparent ascendancy of economic nationalism within the GOP. Romney’s persistence in trying to brand himself the “most protectionist” or “biggest China basher” in the presidential race sort of forced Obama to bring the WTO case – or at least expedited the timetable. Have you seen the Romney ads? Have you read the shrill RNC taunts that cite the widely-discredited, union-funded Economic Policy Institute’s figures on job losses caused by trade with China? Strange bedfellows, indeed!
It was once the case – not too long ago – that Republican candidates argued in support of trade and the freedom of Americans to partake of the opportunities afforded by the global economy. But things, apparently, have changed. The nationalistic strains within the Republican Party have strengthened since 2009. I explained why this was happening in this 2010 Cato paper, which is excerpted below:
Frictions in the U.S.-China relationship are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months. Tensions that were managed adeptly in the past are multiplying, and the tenor of official dialogue and public discourse has become more strident. Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes. Once-respected demarcations between geopolitical and economic aspects of the relationship have been blurred. In fact, economic frictions are now more likely to be cast in the context of our geopolitical differences, which often serves to overstate the challenges and obscure the solutions.
A sign of the times is a recent commentary by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, in which he declares: “China’s worldview threatens America’s geopolitical and economic interests.” That statement would seem to support a course of action very different from the course implied by the same columnist 18 months earlier, when he wrote, “Globalization means interdependence; major nations ignore that at their peril.” That change of heart appears to be contagious.
Understandably, there is angst among the U.S. public, who hear frequently that China will soon surpass the United States in one economic superlative after another. Some worry that China’s rise will impair America’s capacity to fulfill or pursue its traditional geopolitical objectives. And those concerns are magnified by a media that cannot resist tempting the impulses of U.S. nationalism. Woven into stories about China’s frantic pace of development are reminders that the Chinese have not forgotten their two-century slumber—a period of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers.
A recent National Journal cover story describing areas of bilateral policy contention—which the article laments as “frustrating” the fact that U.S. experts see “few alternatives to continued engagement” —features three menacing photographs of Chinese military formations, one picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il flanked by members of the Chinese military, and one photo of the Chinese foreign minister shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Subtly, and sometimes not, the media and politicians are brandishing the image of an adversarial China. In Chinese reluctance to oblige U.S. policy wishes, we are told that China selfishly follows a “China-First” policy. In the increasing willingness of Chinese officials to criticize U.S. policies, we are told of a new “triumphalism” in China. In the reportedly shabby treatment of President Obama by his Chinese hosts on his recent trip to Beijing, we are told that the “Chinese have an innate sense of superiority.” But indignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.
China is a sovereign nation. Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people). Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft. These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.
In this campaign, the RNC seems to be fighting to position itself to the protectionist side of Obama, daring the president to take action – a dare the president has accepted, inflating his political credit in places like Ohio. In response to Governor Romney’s assertion that the president had been soft on China and that he, Romney, would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Obama created the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which resonated politically with the target audience. While the challenger blathers about the president’s alleged fecklessness in dealing with China, the president responds by bringing new WTO cases against Beijing. The most recent complaint, relative to the strident tack Mitt Romney is advocating, is the more responsible, more pro-market course of action. If Romney is to be believed, his trade actions would have far worse consequences for the economy.
Instead of focusing on the real sources of economic stagnation in the United States – including the uncertain business climate inspired by the bailouts, the proliferation of costly and superfluous new environmental, health, and financial regulations, a tax code that is in constant flux, frivolous torts, an education monopoly that fails to produce enough talent backstopped by an immigration system that chases it away – Mitt Romney has chosen to blame America’s woes on China. THAT is the message the Republican presidential candidate, with the full backing of the RNC, brings to the voters in Ohio, whose fortunes are increasingly tied to America’s engagement in the global economy. As of July, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, more than one full percentage point lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Ohio’s economy is growing on account of trade – particularly with China, the state’s third largest market and destination of $2.7 billion worth of Ohio’s output in 2011. Just look at this bar chart that depicts the importance of China to Ohio, and conversely, the costs of a real bilateral trade war.
Governor Romney should ditch his trade warrior schtick pronto, and start explaining to the electorate how pro-trade policies – including the freedom of corporations to invest abroad (to offshore a la Bain Capital)– help enlarge the economic pie. Puffing out the chest to appear the biggest protectionist in the race is bad economics and bad politics.
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