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U.S. Trade Policy Agenda in 2019? Fixing What’s Been Breaking Since January 20, 2017

Upon taking office in 2017, President Trump accused trade partners of underhandedness, demonized U.S. companies with foreign supply chains, and perpetuated the false narrative that trade is a zero-sum game requiring an “America First” agenda. He withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened to pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and initiated a war of attrition against the World Trade Organization by refusing to endorse any new Appellate Body judges until his unspecified demands were met.

How the World Trade Organization Can Curb China’s Intellectual Property Transgressions

Quite rightly, President Donald Trump and his Administration are targeting the transgressions of China against US intellectual property rights in their unfolding trade strategy. But why not use the WTO rules that offer a real remedy for the United States without resorting to illegal unilateral action outside the WTO?

Seventeen years after China joined the WTO, China still falls considerably short of fulfilling its WTO obligations to protect intellectual property. About 70 percent of the software in use in China, valued at nearly $8.7 billion, is pirated. The annual cost to the US economy worldwide from pirated software, counterfeit goods, and the theft of trade secrets could be as high as $600 billion, with China at the top of the IP infringement list. China is the source of 87 percent of the counterfeit goods seized upon entry into the United States.

One possible response by the United States is the one the Trump Administration seems to be taking: slapping billions of dollars of tariffs on imports of more than 100 Chinese products through unilateral trade action. Given its protectionist predilections, taking this approach is surely tempting to the Trump Administration. Doing so will, however, harm American workers, businesses, and consumers, and contribute to further turmoil in the global economy.

Disciplining China at the WTO

The scope of the Trump administration’s Section 232 “national security” tariffs is filled with uncertainty – exemptions are being negotiated this week – but we are already on to the next set of aggressive trade moves: reports suggest that the administration will announce tariffs on imports of Chinese products today, as punishment for China’s alleged unfair trade practices. This would be a unilateral response to China’s practices, with the U.S. Trade Representative acting as the judge, jury, and executioner. This approach may not be all that effective in getting China to change, and risks retaliation by China.

But there is another way: Bring complaints against China to the WTO, and get rulings from a neutral arbiter on these practices.

Can the WTO Handle China?

We often hear arguments that the World Trade Organization cannot handle an economy like China’s, with its heavy state intervention. Trade rules are just not up to this task, some people say. Here’s a recent example from a Wall Street Journal article entitled “How China Swallowed the WTO”:

Rather than fulfilling its mission of steering the Communist behemoth toward longstanding Western trading norms, the WTO instead stands accused of enabling Beijing’s state-directed mercantilism, in turn allowing China to flood the world with cheap exports while limiting foreign access to its own market.

“The WTO’s abject failure to address emerging problems caused by unfair practices from countries like China has put the U.S. at a great disadvantage,” Peter Navarro, a trade adviser to President Donald Trump, said in an interview.

The WTO Does Not Usurp U.S. Sovereignty

With steel industry lawyers and executives populating key trade policy positions in the Trump administration, we are witnessing the return of an old, rusty narrative that portrays the World Trade Organization as unaccountable global government intent on running roughshod over U.S. sovereignty.  On the Forbes website, today, I explain why that is a protectionist canard.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

Clayton Yeutter, RIP

After a long battle with cancer, Ambassador Clayton Yeutter passed away on Saturday at the age of 86 at his home in Potomac, Maryland. With his passing, the world parts not only with a brilliant, effective, accomplished leader, but an extraordinarily generous, decent man whose enduring kindness and humble demeanor made politics and policymaking in Washington more tolerable for all involved.

Clayton Yeutter had a long an illustrious career spent in both the private and public sectors, as well as in academia, but he is probably best known for his service during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

As Reagan’s U.S. Trade Representative from 1985 to 1989, Ambassador Yeutter presided over implementation of the very first U.S. bilateral free trade agreement (with Israel) and he launched and oversaw negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which evolved into the North American Free Trade Agreement, to include Mexico, in 1994.

As USTR, Ambassador Yeutter also launched and advanced the “Uruguay Round” of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which resulted in broader and deeper reductions in global barriers to trade than had previously been achieved, and it established the World Trade Organization in 1995.

During the first two years of the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-91), Yeutter served as Secretary of Agriculture, where he was instrumental in steering U.S. agricultural policy back to a more market orientation, from which it had deviated in the mid-1980s. The 1990 farm bill (The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) included reductions in agricultural subsidies that were negotiated during the Uruguay Round.

Yeutter held other high-profile positions, including an eight-year stint as President and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—a period during which the volume of trade in agricultural, currency, and interest rate futures more than tripled. He served as Republican National Committee Chairman for two years, following the death of Lee Atwater.

Lighthizer Completes Trump’s Protectionist Triumvirate

Former Reagan administration deputy U.S. trade representative and longtime trade-remedies attorney, Robert Lighthizer, is President-elect Trump’s choice for United States Trade Representative. Considered in conjunction with the appointments of Peter Navarro to head the newly-created National Trade Council at the White House (my take) and Wilbur Ross at the Commerce Department (my take), Lighthizer’s selection seems to confirm fears that U.S. trade policy is descending into darkness.  At the very least, it is reasonable to assume that for the foreseeable future trade policy will be overwhelmingly enforcement-oriented, while trade agreements and other forms of liberalization will be relegated to the doghouse.

For many years, Lighthizer has represented U.S. steel companies, America’s most trade-litigious industry, filing dozens of antidumping and countervailing duty petitions to keep foreign steel out of the United States. Some of the cases in which he was involved were brought before WTO dispute settlement, where the panels and Appellate Body ruled that the United States was administering its antidumping law in ways that violated U.S. commitments under the WTO Antidumping Agreement.

Perhaps, as a result of those experiences, Lighthizer has been a strident critic of the WTO’s dispute settlement body, which he accuses of overreach and usurpation of U.S. sovereignty. (Here is a debate from 10 years ago between Lighthizer and me on the merits of the WTO.) The fact is that there may be somewhat of a pro-complainant “bias” at the WTO because governments don’t bring cases to dispute settlement unless they are reasonably certain of victory.  There is a selection bias.  When the United States is the complainant, it wins most of the issues in most of the cases.  When the United States is the defendant, it loses most of the issues in most of the cases. It just so happens that the United States has had to defend its indefensible antidumping regime many times at the WTO, and in most cases it has lost.  Antidumping litigation is Lighthizer’s bread and butter.

Tilting at Sawmills: Extortion and Lawlessness Prominent in U.S. Approach to Canadian Lumber

Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement the “worst trade deal ever negotiated.” If he were speaking on behalf of Canadian exporters or American consumers of softwood lumber, his point would have some validity. For more than 20 years, NAFTA has failed to deliver free trade in lumber. Instead, a system of managed trade has persisted at the behest of rent-seeking U.S. producers, egged on by Washington lawyers and lobbyists who know a gravy train when they see one.

Those who consider the United States a beacon of free trade in a swirling sea of protectionist scofflaws will be surprised by the sordid details of the decades-long lumber dispute between the United States and Canada. Among those details is the story of how the U.S. Commerce Department (DOC) ran roughshod over the rule of law to manufacture the leverage needed to extort from Canadian lumber mills a sum of $1 billion, which was used to line the pockets of American mills and the U.S. Forestry Service, while restricting lumber imports for nearly a decade through October 2015, at great expense to retailers, builders, and home buyers.

With that ugly history mostly expunged from the public’s memory, the U.S. lumber industry is back at the trough again, demanding its government intervene to restrict Canadian supply, following a whole 13 month period during which it was forced out of the nest to operate in an environment rife with real market conditions! In the quiet shadows of the Friday after Thanksgiving, U.S. softwood lumber producers filed new antidumping and countervailing duty petitions with the DOC and U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), alleging that dumped and subsidized Canadian imports were causing material injury to the domestic industry.

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