There is a growing bipartisan sentiment in Washington that Chinese trade practices are a problem, since these practices are unfair to American companies in a number of ways. But there is disagreement about the appropriate response. Can multilateral institutions be of use here? Or is unilateralism the only way?
The Trump administration believes that the international dispute settlement system of the World Trade Organization (WTO) offers no effective remedy for these practices, and prefers an approach that relies mostly on unilateral tariffs. The administration sees the issue as follows. China’s mercantilist state systematically discriminates against foreign products and foreign producers in China while forcing foreign companies to hand over their intellectual property (IP) as the price of access to China’s large and growing market. China engages in widespread cheating in its trade practices, including not only high tariffs, domestic content requirements, and other traditional forms of protectionism, but also rigged regulations that erect trade barriers by favoring Chinese companies and outright theft of foreign IP. And, Trump and his trade cohorts say repeatedly, there is virtually nothing the United States can do under current WTO rules to stop this predatory Chinese behavior.
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