WTO Panel Decision in United States – Tariff Measures on Certain Goods From China Increases the Need For Comprehensive WTO Reform



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

On September 15, 2020, the WTO panel considering China’s challenge to certain additional duties on its products imposed by the United States flowing from an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended, released its report and concluded that the U.S. action was inconsistent with most favored nation (MFN) obligations under GATT 1994 Art. I and U.S. tariff bindings under GATT 1994 Art. II(a) and (b) and was not justified under GATT 1994 Art. XX(a) as action to protect public morals.

The U.S. Trade Representative issued a press release which is copied below.

“WTO Report on US Action Against China Shows Necessity for Reform”

Washington, DC – U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer today criticized a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel report that stated that actions taken by the U.S. to combat China’s widespread and damaging theft of American technology and intellectual property were inconsistent with WTO rules.

“This panel report confirms what the Trump Administration has been saying for four years: The WTO is completely inadequate to stop China’s harmful technology practices,’ said Ambassador Lighthizer. ‘Although the panel did not dispute the extensive evidence submitted by the United States of intellectual property theft by China, its decision shows that the WTO provides no remedy for such misconduct. The United States must be allowed to defend itself against unfair trade practices, and the Trump Administration will not let China use the WTO to take advantage of American workers, businesses, farmers, and ranchers. It is important to note that this report has no effect on the historic Phase One Agreement between the United States and China, which includes new, enforceable commitments by China to prevent the theft of American technology.’

USTR issued a Section 301 report in 2018 documenting how China had engaged in unfair forced technology transfer practices, such as exploiting its foreign ownership and administrative requirements to extort U.S. intellectual property rights or supporting commercial cyber theft from U.S. entities. The report cited hundreds of sources and thousands of pieces of evidence, including reports from governments, firms, business associations, think tanks and researchers, and others. These unfair trade practices and other actions by China have cost U.S. innovators, workers, and businesses billions of dollars every year.

“The actions USTR took in response to these practices led earlier this year to the historic Economic and Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China (the ‘Phase One’ Agreement).

“Background: China initiated this WTO dispute – United States-Tariff Measures on Certain Goods from China (DS543) – in April 2018, and subsequently amended its request for consultations. In January 2019, the WTO established a panel at China’s request. The dispute covers two of the trade actions in the Section 301 investigation of China’s Acts, Policies, and Practices Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation: the $34 billion trade action announced in June 2018, and the $200 billion trade action announced in September 2018.”

The Panel ReportWT/DS543/R

The panel report is relatively short (56 pages plus table of contents and list of disputes cited). The panel rejected two preliminary U.S. arguments and then addressed the core issues.

The U.S. had argued that the U.S. and China were engaged in negotiations and were handling the matter outside of the WTO and had reached a Phase I Agreement all of which meant the panel should not issue a report. That argument was rejected as China’s position was that no mutually satisfactory solution had been reached. Similarly, the U.S. effort to restrict the Chinese claim on the second action by the U.S. to 10% on $200 billion of trade and not the later increase to 25% was rejected.

On the two main challenges by China, that the tariffs imposed were inconsistent with most favored nation treatment under GATT Art. I and that the additional tariffs violated U.S. tariff bindings, the United States did not present argument. Thus, the panel reviewed whether China presented a prima facie case of violation and, when it so concluded then found U.S. actions to be inconsistent with those provisions.

The United States argument was limited to its right to deviate from other WTO obligations because of GATT 1994 Art. XX(a), actions taken necessary to protect public morals.

As reviewed in the panel report (para. 7.100), “The United States asserts that any inconsistency of the measures at issue with provisions of the GATT 1994 is justified as necessary to protect US public morals pursuant to Article XX(a) of the GATT 1994. This is because, according to the United States, China’s acts, policies, and practices addressed in the relevant Section 301 Report amount to ‘state-sanctioned theft and misappropriation of U.S. technology, intellectual property, and commercial secrets’182 which violates the public morals prevailing in the United States.183″ [footnotes omitted]

7.113. The United States asserts that the measures at issue protect public morals within the meaning of Article XX(a) because they have been adopted to ‘”‘obtain the elimination” of conduct that violates U.S. standards of rights and wrong, namely China’s unfair trade acts, policies, and practices’.201 In support of its argument, the United States has submitted evidence of several domestic instruments that reflect prevailing US ‘standards of right and wrong’ and outlaw some (although not all) of the Chinese practices documented in the Section 301 Report.202 The United States contends that acts, policies, and practices of China referred to in the Section 301 Report violate US ‘standards of right and wrong’, in particular the prohibition of theft, extortion, cyber-enabled theft and cyber-hacking, economic espionage and the misappropriation of trade secrets, anti-competitive behaviour, as well as the regulation of governmental takings of property (hereafter referred to as ‘the public morals as invoked by the United States’).” [footnotes omitted]

The panel generally agreed with the United States that public morals objectives could include those identified by the United States and were not negated because there were economic effects as well. The U.S. argument was as follows: The public morals objective invoked by the United States

7.127. The United States asserts that China’s actions documented in the Section 301 Report violate prevailing US ‘standards of right and wrong’ as reflected in US domestic legislation.226 The United States has submitted as evidence several domestic instruments that reflect prevailing US ‘standards of right and wrong’ and that outlaw some (although not all) of the Chinese practices documented in the Section 301 Report.227 Specifically, the United States refers to:

• state and federal laws, under which the act of “theft” is universally deemed a criminal offence 228;

• US laws that generally prohibit extortion229;

• US laws that criminalize cyber-enabled theft and cyber-hacking230;

• US laws that criminalize economic espionage and the misappropriation of trade secrets (including though acts of ‘bribery’ or ‘extortion’)231;

• US laws against anti-competitive behaviour (in particular the prohibition and criminalization of monopolization)232, which reflect ‘fundamental concepts of fair competition and fair play’233, and the breach of which the United States views as ‘a threat to the ‘preservation of our democratic political and social institutions”234;

• US laws on contracts and torts235;

• US laws on patents236; and

• civil and criminal laws on, and governmental takings, of property.237

7.128. The United States explains that the economic concerns underlying some of these legal instruments are related to notions of fair competition and fair play238, and that the United States does not view unfair competitive practices merely as a detriment to business and innovation, but also as a threat to the preservation of its democratic political and social institutions.239 The United States also explains that it ‘imposes constraints on behavior based on national concepts of right and wrong to ensure market-oriented outcomes’.240 According to the United States, China ‘uses coercion and subterfuge to steal or otherwise improperly acquire intellectual property, trade secrets, technology, and confidential business information from U.S companies with the aim of advantaging Chinese companies and achieving China’s industrial policy goals.’241 The United States, considers that these acts, policies, and practices relating to intellectual property and technology transfer violate these US standards of right and wrong and thus implicate US public morals within the meaning of Article XX(a).242″ [footnotes omitted]

In the end the panel faulted the United States for not being able to demonstrate that the actions taken were necessary to achieve its public morals objective, looking at the number of products where there hadn’t been a showing that the products benefited from the Chinese government actions or where exclusions could be made for products where such actions were present but where there were economic reasons to exclude the product. The panel looked at List 1 and List 2 separately. The panel’s characterization of the U.S. position on each list is useful in understanding U.S. concerns.

7.163. The United States argues that the additional duties at issue are “necessary” to protect public morals because they ‘play a necessary role toward the goal of eliminating China’s unfair trade acts, policies, and practices by raising the cost of such practices and reducing China’s incentive to continue engaging in such conduct going forward’.316 According to the United States, ‘it is reasonable to conclude that China will continue to pursue its unfair trade acts, policies, and practices while it is advantageous to China to do so, for example, until the economic costs of doing so begin to approach or outweigh the economic benefits’317, and for that reason, ‘to protect U.S. interests in moral (right or wrong) economic behaviour, it is necessary for the United States to adopt measures that are capable of changing China’s economic cost-benefit analysis’.318 The United States also asserts that the measures are necessary to achieve the public morals objective as invoked by the United States because it was only after their adoption that China agreed to enter into negotiations with the United States to address the concerns documented in the Section 301 Report.319 Finally, the United States asserts that so long as a WTO Member can establish that a measure that aims to influence the policies or practices of another Member is necessary to protect public morals, that measure can be justified under Article XX(a).320″ [footnotes omitted]

7.216. The United States adopted and implemented the additional duties on List 2 products through the Notice of 21 September 2018. This Notice explains the rationale of the imposition of additional duties on List 2 products as follows:

China’s unfair acts, policies, and practices include not just its specific technology transfer and IP polices referenced in the notice of initiation in the investigation, but also China’s subsequent defensive actions taken to maintain those policies. China has decided to impose approximately $50 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods, with the goal of encouraging the United States to drop its efforts to obtain the elimination of China’s unfair policies. Thus, instead of addressing the underlying problems, China has increased tariffs to further protect the unreasonable acts, policies, and practices identified in the investigation, resulting in increased harm to the U.S. economy.

The judgment during the period of investigation, based on then-available information, was that a $50 billion action would be effective in obtaining the elimination of China’s policies.

China’s response, however, has shown that the current action no longer is appropriate. China has made clear – both in public statements and in government-to-government communications – that it will not change its policies in response to the current Section 301 action. Indeed, China denies that it has any problems with respect to its policies involving technology transfer and intellectual property.

7.218. The United States explains that ‘List 2 measures apply to a broader class of products than those found to directly benefit from the unfair trade acts, policies, and practices documented in the Section 301 Report’.446 The United States asserts that it imposed additional duties on List 2 products ‘after China “made clear – both in public statements and in government-to-government communications – that it [would] not change its policies’ and instead ‘responded … by increasing duties on U.S. exports to China”‘.447 According to the United States, the imposition of additional duties on List 2 products is ‘derivative’ of the imposition of additional duties on List 1 products.448 For that reason, the United States argues that the imposition of additional duties on List 2 products is ‘also necessary to protect public morals in part because to fail to respond to China’s economic retaliation would demonstrate that the United States Government is willing to acquiesce in theft and forced transfer of U.S. technology by one of its largest trading partners’.449

Reaction to the Panel Report

Much of the panel report is straight forward and unobjectionable. However, on the question of the GATT 1994 Art. XX(a) public morals provision, the analysis of core issues is too wooden and ignores the realities of government operations. The United States has worked for years to get China to address the myriad issues laid out in the 301 investigation which the panel accepts as important public morals issues for the United States. The effect of the many practices has been of major concern to the Untied States, to its businesses and workers for more than a decade. Duties were imposed exactly because prior efforts to get China to address the serious problems were never fruitful, and following the 301 investigation, China opted not to negotiate with the United States. The List One products were largely items known to benefit from one or more of the programs and the intent was to apply the tariffs until China would negotiate and resolve the matters. Thus, on the list one necessity issue, one can only conclude that the panel’s construction was too narrow. Similarly, finding fault with U.S. action because some products were excluded that may have benefited from the programs of concern ignores the political realities of applying pressure without imposing unintended consequences.


The U.S.-China trade dispute is obviously important bilaterally and multilaterally. While the China challenge to the U.S. action is understandable from their perspective, what is clear is that the panel report will make reform at the WTO more difficult and will likely result in the U.S. filing an appeal so that the dispute is not concluded in the foreseeable future.

On reform, China has taken the position on the question of the definition of “public body” that the issue is not subject to negotiations because of an Appellate Body report favorable to China. Similarly, despite the array of problematic practices of China that are not presently subject to WTO rules, the panel report will likely result in China refusing to negotiate on the underlying issues in an effort to kick the can down the road before the myriad Chinese policies that are inconsistent with market principles are ever brought under WTO rules.

At the same time, the panel report supports the views of the current U.S. Administration that the WTO doesn’t address many of China’s practices and rather restricts market-economy countries from addressing distortions not covered by existing rules to get conditions of fair trade established or restored. Thus, one should expect continued reluctance on the part of the U.S. to permit restoration of the Appellate Body with an expanded list of reform needs to cover the expanded list of inadequacies of the existing WTO rule book.

On appeal of the panel report, there is no reason for the U.S. not to file an appeal and there are likely interesting issues for an eventual appeal on the interpretation of GATT 1994 Art. XX(a). The U.S. did not pursue a case on the various retaliations undertaken by China — none of which would presumably pass WTO muster as they were taken without WTO authorization. As China has already taken and is maintaining retaliation, the two countries are presumably in the posture they intend to maintain until there is a broader resolution of their trade differences. While the U.S. may change its posture on the dispute if there is a different Administration, I would not expect a change in direction under the current Administration.

Panel Report

Terence Stewart, former Managing Partner, Law Offices of Stewart and Stewart, and author of the blog, Current Thoughts on Trade.

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