When China enacted legislation earlier this year giving China sweeping powers over Hong Kong in the name of national security following months of protests in Hong Kong, there was significant concern among China’s trading partners about China’s actions. The United States, viewing Hong Kong as having lost significant autonomy to China by the legislation enacted by China, took actions to eliminate many aspects of its own treatment towards Hong Kong. The actions of the U.S. were caused by President Trump’s Executive Order of July 14 which was published in the Federal Register on July 17, 2020. The Federal Register notice is embedded below.2020-15646
One of the actions taken in response to the Executive Order was a change by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the country of origin marking required on goods from Hong Kong to indicate such goods were from China. The Federal Register notice of the change was published on August 11, 2020 and is embedded below.2020-17599
The government of Hong Kong released a statement on the day of the Federal Register notice and has raised concerns with the U.S. government about such change in marking requirements during the intervening months. The August 11 release from Hong Kong is embedded below.HKSARG strongly objects to US' new rule on origin marking of Hong Kong products
Having been unable to get the United States to modify its position on country of origin marking, on October 30, Hong Kong filed a request for consultations with the United States at the WTO challenging the change in origin marking requirements as violative of a number of WTO obligations the U.S. has (seven alleged violations are listed in the request). See UNITED STATES – ORIGIN MARKING REQUIREMENT, REQUEST FOR CONSULTATIONS BY HONG KONG, CHINA, WT/DS597/1, G/L/1365, G/RO/D/8, G/TBT/D/53 (3 November 2020). The request for consultations is embedded below.597-1
Whatever the technical and legal merits of the Hong Kong request for consultations, this is the type of dispute that will not result in a satisfactory resolution through resort to the WTO dispute settlement system. The underlying dispute is about the actions of China in implementing national security legislation affecting the treatment of those living in Hong Kong which the U.S. (and many other countries) view as contrary to the agreed treatment of Hong Kong by China following the return to China from the United Kingdom. Resolution of the underlying dispute will not be advanced by Hong Kong’s request. Moreover, with the current impasse on the WTO Appellate Body, adding a dispute to the WTO pending cases which in reality involves bilateral differences between the U.S. and China will do nothing to resolve the Appellate Body impasse. Thus, if there is a panel report which finds U.S. violations of existing obligations, the U.S. would almost certainly file an appeal where no functioning Appellate Body is in place. Thus, the dispute will not resolve the matter or result in authorization by the WTO for action by Hong Kong.
While a change in administrations could result in a different approach being taken by the United States (unknown if that would be true), if the Trump Administration continues past January 20, the request for consultations filed by Hong Kong will simply generate paperwork without the possibility of a meaningful resolution.
Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.
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