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Global trade order may be biggest casualty of US tariff moves

Latest round of China, US tariffs is, for instance, "obviously not good for the WTO"

Mr Azevedo says it would be better for countries to address their national security concerns at a political level.


THE World Trade Organization is facing the greatest crisis of its 23-year existence.

President Donald Trump doesn't believe the WTO can handle the problems created by China's rapid economic ascent and is fundamentally challenging the rules that govern international trade. "The WTO is unfair to US," Mr Trump said on Twitter.

The US has attacked both allies and adversaries in an effort to redraw trade relationships and Mr Trump has threatened levies on US$150 billion of Chinese goods in an escalating tit-for-tat with Beijing. China has warned of US$50 billion of its own tariffs on American imports.

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The escalating trade skirmish is threatening to sideline the global trading order that the US has helped to build. So as world leaders rush to the White House to defend their countries' interests, the biggest casualty may be the global system of trade itself.

Here are the five biggest challenges facing the WTO:

  • Rules undermined

The unilateral tariffs threatened by the US and China don't adhere to the WTO's established procedures, and if triggered, will inflame trade tensions that can't be constrained by the trade body.

The latest round of tariffs are "obviously not good for the WTO," said Patrick Low, a former chief economist at the institution. "If the measures are implemented, the two biggest traders will have thumbed their noses at the WTO. Politics will have trumped the rule of law."

  • Reasons to go rogue

The WTO is facing an influx of disputes from countries using national security as a justification for tariffs. This exploits a loophole in WTO law that permits its 164 members to take any action they consider necessary to defend "essential security interests". Trade officials are concerned that the WTO could be sidelined if countries increasingly abuse the national-security exemption to justify their trade restrictions. WTO director general Roberto Azevedo said it would be better for countries to address their national security concerns at a political level, rather than testing the limits of the WTO system.

"National security is something that is not technical," Mr Azevedo said. "It is not something that will be solved by a dispute in the WTO. That requires conversation at the highest political level."

  • Hearings may be paralysed

Since August 2017 the US has blocked nominees to the WTO's appellate body - a key forum for mediating disputes - saying it has overstepped its mandate.

"The WTO has not always worked as expected," the US trade representative said in its annual report. "Instead of serving as a negotiating forum where countries can develop new and better rules, it has sometimes been dominated by a dispute settlement system where activist 'judges' try to impose their own policy preferences on member states." If the US continues its hold, the appellate body will be paralysed in late 2019 because it won't have the three panelists required to sign off on rulings. Mr Azevedo said the US block could eliminate the WTO's role as a trade dispute forum and lead to a "domino effect" of trade retaliation.

  • Market economy dispute

China says the US and the EU are violating WTO rules by continuing to treat it as a non-market economy in anti-dumping investigations.

The dispute has already compelled the EU to modify its basic anti-dumping regulations and could ultimately force the US to modify the way it penalises Chinese producers that ship cheap products to the US market.

The US said it has no plans to treat China equally in international anti-dumping investigations because Beijing has not adopted market-economy principles. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer previously called it the "most serious litigation that we have at the WTO."

  • Failed negotiations

It took two decades for the WTO to complete its first significant trade accord and prospects for new deals among its 164 members are slim.

As a result, countries are pushing piecemeal accords centred on sectoral issues like e-commerce or investment. While that may be positive for groups of like-minded countries, it underlines the sense that the WTO's broader negotiating agenda is mired in disagreement. BLOOMBERG