What’s most laughable about the Obama administration’s new World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge against China’s subsidies to aluminum producers isn’t the decision to file the complaint with just over a week left in office (although admittedly that’s pretty laughable). What’s most laughable is the continuing belief that the WTO is an effective instrument for fighting such predatory trade practices.
After all, as claimed by a U.S. industry leader in a statement cited by the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office itself, “China’s subsidies have done enormous damage to the U.S. and global aluminum industries.” USTR’s press release, moreover, goes on to present data making clear that the PRC’s state-supported overcapacity building dates back to at least 2007, and that private sector American rivals that need profits have been forced to respond to the resulting global price crash by dramatically slashing both production and capacity.
It’s bad enough, as USTR admits, that President Obama’s main response until yesterday was completely ineffectual “engagement” with Beijing in various official bilateral talk shops. Mr. Obama allegedly even brought up the subject with Chinese president Xi Jinping last September. The results, according to USTR? “[W]hile China has expressed a willingness to continue talking about the excess aluminum capacity situation….China has not been willing to take concrete steps to address it.”
And now, with the number of aluminum smelter in the United States having fallen from 14 to five since 2011 – “with only one operating at full capacity” – the administration has decided to begin a WTO process that could take 15 months (counting appeals) to complete and, if Washington wins, authorize countervailing tariffs. Further, if Beijing loses and promises to end its aluminum transgressions, the United States will be faced with the probably insuperable challenge of monitoring compliance by China’s highly secretive bureaucracies.
This morning, Washington Post and CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria wrote that “Chinese elites” he’s recently met with are “remarkably sanguine about [President-elect] Trump” and his attacks on Beijing’s trade-related economic practices. If the incoming president relies heavily on the WTO to fight China’s predation, their complacency will be amply justified.