Rumors abound that the Trump administration will soon pursue “significant” retaliatory actions in response to alleged Chinese intellectual property rights (IPR) violations, pursuant to “Section 301” of U.S. trade law. While Chinese government IPR policies are indeed cause for concern and while Section 301 does permit the U.S. executive branch to act unilaterally in response to certain foreign trade actions, there is a smart and a not-so-smart approach to these issues, with the latter likely to be unintended by Congress, inconsistent with U.S. trade agreement obligations, ineffective, harmful for U.S. consumers and exporters, and met with a legitimate rebuke from not only China but also other U.S. trading partners. The alternative, on the other hand, would present the President with a golden opportunity to pursue a smart U.S. trade policy response to a serious issue that could achieve the same objectives as the other option, but in a more strategic and effective manner.
If reports are to be believed, the President is unfortunately not inclined to take the smart approach.
Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 provides the U.S. executive branch with the authority to enforce U.S. rights under international trade agreements and to respond to certain foreign “unfair” practices not covered by trade agreements. Section 301 is the principal statutory mechanism under which the President may unilaterally (1) determine that a foreign country has violated existing trade agreements or has engaged in acts that are “unjustifiable” or “unreasonable” and burden U.S. commerce; and (2) take retaliatory action to enforce U.S. rights under a trade agreement or to obtain the elimination of the foreign country act in question. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) makes determinations, initiates and conducts investigations, and implements any retaliatory action under Section 301.
Prior to the advent of the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement system in 1995, USTR frequently invoked Section 301 to seek to eliminate “unfair” foreign government trade practices. The mechanism’s frequent use was in large part due to the fact that the WTO’s predecessor – the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – provided for less coverage and less accountability than the new WTO system. With the WTO now online and with new WTO rules against Members’ unilateral retaliation (more on this below), Section 301 fell into disuse, with only a few actions since the late 1990s.
In August of last year, however, USTR initiated an investigation of China under Section 301, which sought “to determine whether acts, policies, and practices of the Government of China related to technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation are unreasonable or discriminatory and burden or restrict U.S. commerce.” USTR’s notice of initiation lists four types of conduct that were to be examined in the investigation (emphasis mine):
- The Chinese government reportedly uses a variety of tools, including opaque and discretionary administrative approval processes, joint venture requirements, foreign equity limitations, procurements, and other mechanisms to regulate or intervene in U.S. companies’ operations in China, in order to require or pressure the transfer of technologies and intellectual property to Chinese companies;
- The Chinese government’s acts, policies and practices reportedly deprive U.S. companies of the ability to set market-based terms in licensing and other technology-related negotiations with Chinese companies and undermine U.S. companies’ control over their technology in China;
- The Chinese government reportedly directs and/or unfairly facilitates the systematic investment in, and/or acquisition of, U.S. companies and assets by Chinese companies to obtain cutting-edge technologies and intellectual property and generate large-scale technology transfer in strategic industries; and
- The investigation will consider whether the Chinese government is conducting or supporting unauthorized intrusions into U.S. commercial computer networks or cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or confidential business information.
USTR’s findings are officially due by August 2018, but various media outlets report that the Trump administration’s USTR has already completed the Section 301 investigation and is now considering whether to impose steep tariffs on a large swath of Chinese imports. Inside U.S. Trade[$] says that “the 301 remedies against China would include what some called ‘significant’ tariffs covering retaliatory action in the trillion-dollar range,” with USTR arriving “at such a high number by calculating the cumulative damage the U.S. believes China’s IP and tech transfer policies have caused over the past 10 years.” Private groups are expecting tariffs because, as one source put it, “[Trump] seems to like tariffs, not because they’ll do much good.” Axios generally agrees, noting that it’s likely Trump in January will “put tariffs on Chinese consumer electronics as retaliation against the country’s widespread theft of American companies’ intellectual property.”
A massive unilateral tariff response by the United States would be a big mistake rife with legal and economic problems. This is unfortunate because there is widespread, bipartisan agreement in the United States that Chinese IPR practices are a problem – a concern shared by many U.S. trading partners – and because, as noted below, there’s a far smarter approach to this problem under Section 301.
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