Category Archives: WTO Negotiations

Is it easier to liberalize agriculture via bilateral or multilateral deals?

Tyler Cowen’s latest Bloomberg column is about bilateral trade deals. He’s more optimistic than most:

The smartest case for trade bilateralism is that trade in many goods is already fairly free, but some egregious examples of tariffs and trade barriers remain. Look at agriculture, European restrictions on beef hormones in beef, and the Chinese unwillingness to allow in foreign companies. Targeted strategic bargaining, backed by concrete threats emanating from a relatively powerful nation — in this case the U.S. — could demand removal of those restrictions. Furthermore, the negotiating process would be more directly transactional and less cartelized and bureaucratic.

With regard to liberalizing agriculture, I think the conventional wisdom is that multilateral negotiations are superior. Here’s Jagdish Bhagwati talking to the NY Times back in 2004:

The only way concessions can be made on agricultural subsidies is if you go multilateral. Think of production subsidies, which the United States has: they can’t be cut for just one trading partner. When it comes to export subsidies–which are the big issue for the Europeans and a little bit for us too–we will cut export subsidies say, for Brazil, in a bilateral negotiation, but the Europeans won’t. Then the Europeans will have an advantage. My point is that if subsidies are the name of the game in agriculture, if the foreign countries that export want to remove subsidies, they have to go multilateral.


On the NYT’s “Building Trade Walls”

The Trump administration has certainly increased public discussion of trade policy. Yesterday, the New York Times ran a series of graphics accompanied by a thousand words on “Building Trade Walls” in its online business section. I found the piece frustrating. At a number of points, the article presents valid information in a way that muddles meanings or implies misleading conclusions.

Are sales taxes akin to import tariffs?

Consider these two consecutive paragraphs:

But many countries have additional taxes. For example, China and other countries, but not the United States, also charge a steep value-added tax, which is a kind of national sales tax on imports and home-produced goods alike. Exports are exempt from value-added taxes.

Once value-added taxes and sales taxes are included in an international comparison, America’s taxes on imports are much lower than those of almost every other country.

Why would you make an international comparison that counted VATs or sales taxes as taxes on imports? Since VATs and sales taxes apply to both “imports and home-produced goods alike”, they aren’t protectionist. An import tariff applies to imports and not to domestic-produced goods. The discriminatory nature of the import tariff is why it protects domestic firms from foreign competitors.

Back in September, Paul Krugman lambasted Donald Trump for accusing Mexico’s VAT of being a trade barrier. Now, his NYT colleagues have produced a good-looking map that relies on this premise. A quick mashup of the two makes the contrast clear:

In short, the NYT‘s first paragraph noting the non-discriminatory nature of VATs and sales taxes means that the international comparison offered in the second paragraph is nonsensical.

Is China a developing country?

In another troublesome part of the article, a series of facts about China’s GDP and GDP per capita are somehow combined to say that China might be a developed economy:

Today, China’s designation as a developing country is more debatable. China is the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest producer of steel and cars.

Still, China trails most developed nations by some measures, and Chinese officials argue that it is still developing and does not yet qualify as industrialized.

China’s economy is still roughly two-thirds the size of the American economy, even though China has four times as many people. Average incomes in China are still one-fifth to one-quarter of levels in the United States, and much of China’s interior is still underdeveloped.

Based on the first paragraph, I have to ask: is Iceland a developing economy? It’s quite small, with a GDP of maybe $15 billion. But of course it’s developed, as it has a GDP per capita in the neighborhood of $50,000. Development is about income levels (and accompanying socioeconomic changes), not population size. I have never before seen GDP (as opposed to GDP per capita) used to inform the “developing country” designation.

The NYT article raises the (novel) question of whether China is developed or developing in the context of its trade-policy obligations:

The World Trade Organization, the global trade adjudicator, has allowed developing countries to impose far higher tariffs than industrialized countries, while they build up industries at home. China has been counted as a developing country.

This is unhelpful in a few important respects. First, the WTO does not designate countries as developing or developed. In the narrow areas where developing countries are given special and differential treatment, member nations identify themselves as developing. Second, the “global trade adjudicator” language is potentially confusing. Countries’ MFN tariff schedules are negotiated among member nations at the WTO. There’s no separate WTO entity announcing tariff rates for developing (or developed) countries. Past rounds of negotiations among members have resulted in the tariff schedules of China and other economies. Third, China has lower tariff bindings than a typical developing country, partly because it acceded to the WTO later than most developing countries. Branstetter and Lardy say that “China agreed to a set of conditions that were far more stringent than the terms under which other developing countries had acceded”. Compare China’s 10% average bound tariff to Brazil’s 31% or India’s 49%.  Fourth, there is not much evidence that “far higher tariffs” have allowed countries to “build up industries at home”. China’s export growth, in particular, has involved integration into global value chains and assembly processing, not import-substitution industrialization behind a tariff wall.

A few other concerns

  • It would be more helpful to plot the trade deficit as a percent of GDP than in nominal dollars.
  • A focus on the bilateral deficit with China is unhelpful.
  • A discussion of border adjustments that does not mention exchange rates omits a first-order feature, according to the policy’s proponents.
  • The NYT reporters say: “When China joined the W.T.O. in 2001, the expectation was that its tariffs would later be adjusted lower during global trade talks, known as the Doha Round. But those talks fell apart for a variety of reasons.” China’s bilateral negotiations with the US wrapped up in 1999. The protests in Seattle that year accompanied a failed round of WTO negotiations. I don’t think expectations of the Doha Round – which started two years later in a post-9/11 context – were clear when China’s accession protocol was being determined.

“Miserly progress made on Doha trade talks”

Alan Beattie has a long(ish) summary of the Doha round’s dim prospects in the FT. It begins: “If Charles Dickens wanted a bleak setting for a rewrite of A Christmas Carol, his classic tale of regret and redemption, he could do worse than the World Trade Organisation.”

Here’s a tidbit that caught my eye:

Bernard Hoekman, director of the World Bank’s international trade department, told a seminar in Washington last week that the bank and others had overhyped the round. When it came to sharing blame, he said, “I can point to myself and my organisation.” The bank produced ambitious estimates of how Doha could boost economic growth and reduce poverty. “Those became a focal point for expectations, and expectations were overblown.”

A decade of Doha

Some highlights from this evening’s discussion of the Doha negotiations at Columbia University:

  • On why it’s called the DDA: “I was facing down a half-dozen trade ministers who said, ‘I stood in my parliament and said there’d be no new trade round.’ So I said, ‘it’s not a trade round; it’s a development agenda’. [:::pffffffttt:::] It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up in many textbooks that gets the process going.” – Mike Moore
  • On Doha’s prospects: “I must say, I have never heard Pascal Lamy more grim than this evening.” – Merit Janow
  • “If Doha goes, no one is ever going have a multilateral round again.” – Jagdish Bhagwati

[My transcriptions are closer to quotations than paraphrasing, but these are not verbatim.]

Also on Doha, don’t miss this Alan Beattie tweet.

Does the DSM need support from ongoing negotiations?

Jeff Schott worries that the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism may be less effective if the dismal prospects for future negotiations cause dispute panels to expand their coverage:

Of course, WTO members will still be bound by existing obligations and the heralded dispute settlement system will continue to function. But past success is not a guarantee of future performance. Disputes undoubtedly will arise over “gray areas” of WTO law. Without the prospect of new negotiations to update and clarify the WTO rulebook, panelists will be tempted to bridge the gaps in their rulings. That is the danger: If the panelists attempt, or appear to be attempting, to usurp the powers of WTO members by interpreting and possibly expanding the scope of WTO obligations, it will likely trigger a political backlash against the WTO and discourage national compliance with such rulings. Members of Congress already think this is a problem with regard to the numerous WTO rulings against US antidumping practices. Over time, the frozen WTO legislative function will erode political support for compliance with the judicial function of the WTO

Subramanian proposes a “China round”

Arvind Subramanian (pdf):

China has become too economically dominant for the United States to engage with China on its own. That is one of the major changes that has occurred in the world economy over the last decade. Fortunately, the desire and concern to ensure that China’s rise will remain a force for good is widely shared amongst other industrial and developing countries. This provides an opportunity for the United States to lead a collective effort—muscular multilateralism—to engage with China on trade issues. Moreover, because China’s economic development has benefited enormously from an
open trade system, it will have a stake in preserving it.

A concrete way to realize this is to move beyond the Doha Round to start a new round of multilateral trade negotiations — a possible “China Round” — that would focus on the issues — exchange rates, government procurement, services, technology policy, commodities, and climate change — which are particularly crucial for China’s trade relations with the US and with other large trading nations.


In your book, you talk about the importance of tethering China to a multilateral system. Why should China be interested if it’s inevitably number one?

We need to bind China today to the multilateral system so a kind of habit and incentive builds up. Then repudiation of the system would be more difficult. We need to do this before China becomes a hegemon

Everyone has to come together to do this well. If every country tries to make its own deal with China, no one will have any leverage.

Think about exchange rates. If the world came together now and said let’s do a deal on exchange rates, China would be more likely to participate. It doesn’t want to be seen as deviant from international system. The opprobrium of the world is the biggest carrot and stick to use with China.

One of your main policy recommendations is to start a China round of trade negotiations. What could that accomplish?

When China joined World Trade Organization in 2001, people said we tied China to the global economic system (because of the commitments it made to open its markets and follow international rules). But through its exchange rate policy, China has unraveled parts of its commitments. What that signifies is that Chinese leaders at the time were overreaching in terms of domestic political support. Evidently, WTO accession wasn’t politically sustainable internally.

Over time, China will move away from mercantilism. They would then have an incentive to make a deal. A deal could involve government procurement – other countries opening their bidding for China—as well as commitments by China involving control of natural resources and the exchange rate.

Non-Doha in December

Pascal Lamy has indicated that the WTO’s December ministerial meeting ought to focus on non-Doha issues, given how badly the negotiations are going.

We started this meeting on a sombre note.  I do not think the conclusion looks much better.  What we are seeing today is the paralysis in the negotiating function of the WTO, whether it is on market access or on the rule- making.  What we are facing is the inability of the WTO to adapt and adjust to emerging global trade priorities, those you cannot solve through bilateral deals.

This risks overshadowing the achievements in other parts of the WTO functions, such as monitoring, surveillance, dispute settlement or even Aid for Trade, on which I will report fully tomorrow.  There is, therefore, an urgent need to develop a shared diagnosis over the current impasse and what went wrong as a means to prepare a discussion over possible solutions as well as over emerging issues.

I would urge you to use the summer break to reflect and come prepared to fully engage in an “adult conversation” over “what next”.

US cotton subsidies causing turmoil

The US House has passed legislation that threatens its WTO-approved agreement with Brazil on cotton subsidies:

Questions are being raised about the future of the hard-won US-Brazil cotton agreement, thanks to last week’s vote in the US House of Representatives to end payments to the Brazil Cotton Institute. In a 223-197 vote, members passed an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 that, if enacted into law, would violate the terms of the 2010 WTO US-Upland Cotton agreement between the two countries (see Bridges Weekly, 8 June 2011).

The US$147.3 million annual payments were part of an agreement between the two countries that meant to hold Brazil back from imposing US$830 million in WTO-authorised countermeasures. The agreement came after a protracted WTO dispute that deemed various aspects of the US cotton subsidy regime as illegal.

The bill’s sponsor would like to see cuts to US agricultural subsidies, but those aren’t in the legislation:

“I’m pleased that a bipartisan group of Members agreed with me that supporting Brazil’s cotton industry with taxpayer dollars is wasteful and unnecessary. But the bill as a whole still irresponsibly overlooks other commonsense cuts such as the billions of dollars in outdated farm subsidies going to very few large agribusinesses. We cannot afford to continue spending carelessly and cutting recklessly, especially in this tough economy.”

In ongoing discussions about a mini-package for the WTO’s December ministerial meeting, the US ambassador to the WTO is pointing fingers at China for its cotton subsidies.