White House rejects WTO’s trade ‘straitjacket’

A recent report vows not to meet obligations under the World Trade Organization that threaten U.S. independence

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) — U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House fired another salvo at the World Trade Organization on March 1, saying U.S. trade policy would not be dictated by the international body and defended its use of tariffs to pressure China and other trade partners.

A report drawn up by the U.S. Trade Representative outlining the White House’s trade agenda for 2019 said the U.S. will continue to use the Switzerland-based WTO to challenge what it sees as unfair practices.

However, “the United States remains an independent nation, and our trade policy will be made here — not in Geneva. We will not allow the WTO Appellate Body and dispute settlement system to force the United States into a straitjacket of obligations to which we never agreed,” the report said.

The U.S. has imposed tariffs on US$250 billion worth of Chinese imports to press its demands for changes to what Washington sees as China’s unfair policies on intellectual property protections, technology transfers, industrial subsidies and domestic market access.

China has challenged the Trump administration’s tariffs in the WTO, arguing that they violate its agreed rules. The case is likely to be ultimately decided by the WTO’s Appellate Body, the world’s top trade court.

The United States must be allowed the “policy space” to address trade problems, the report said.

“That policy space must include the ability to use tariffs or other forms of leverage to persuade other countries to take our concerns seriously,” it said.

The report was not explicit about how the U.S. would respond to a ruling against it on the issue.

The report was published a day after a WTO adjudication panel handed Washington a major victory over China, ruling that China’s domestic price supports for wheat and rice constituted an excessive subsidy and violated WTO obligations.

The U.S. has argued for years that WTO judges have routinely broken with procedures and exceeded their mandates, imposing new obligations on members.

In an effort to force reforms, Washington has routinely blocked the appointment of judges to its Appellate Body, a process that requires consensus among member states. If continued, the tactic will render the body inoperable by December, when terms end for two of the remaining three judges. WTO rules require three judges to hear appeals.

While Trump’s complaints have found sympathy among other WTO members, blocking new appointments is widely opposed as it risks crippling a guardian of international law.

The report defended U.S. actions to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds, adding that national security exceptions have long been recognized at the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

If the WTO were to overrule the U.S. determination that the tariffs were essential to national security, it “would threaten serious damage to the multilateral trading system,” it said.


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