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WTO Rules that U.S. Section 301 Tariffs on Chinese Imports Violate International Trade Rules

tariffs

WTO Rules that U.S. Section 301 Tariffs on Chinese Imports Violate International Trade Rules

The World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement body ruled that the tariffs imposed by the U.S. on imports from China are inconsistent with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and recommended that the U.S. “bring its measures into conformity” with its obligations under the GATT. Beginning in 2018, at the direction of President Trump, the U.S. imposed tariffs on $400 billion worth of imports from China over 4 different lists or tranches. The U.S. and China negotiated a “phase one” trade deal earlier this year, however, most of the tariffs were still left in place.

The WTO panel concluded that the U.S. failed to demonstrate that the tariff measures are justified under Article XX(a) of the GATT 1994.  As a result, the panel found the U.S. tariff measures to be inconsistent with Articles I:1, II:1(a) and II:1(b) of GATT 1994. In other words, the WTO found that the U.S. tariffs on China were discriminatory and excessive, and the U.S. failed to present justification for an exemption that could have legally allowed for the tariffs.

Despite the WTO’s recommendation, its ruling is highly unlikely to sway the course of U.S. trade policy. This is not only because of the limited authority of the WTO, but also because the administration has argued that the tariffs are justified under U.S. law. Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 provides the U.S. government with the authority to impose trade sanctions on countries that violate trade agreements or engage in unfair trade practices, of which the U.S. has frequently accused China.

The WTO’s ruling is likely to increase the current U.S. administration’s distrust of the WTO. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer criticized the ruling, saying “the United States must be allowed to defend itself against unfair trade practices…” and that “[the WTO’s] decision shows that the WTO provides no remedy for such misconduct” by China.

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Nithya Nagarajan is a Washington-based partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. She practices in the International Trade & Supply Chain group of the firm’s Technology, Manufacturing & Transportation industry team.

Camron Greer is an Assistant Trade Analyst in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Washington D.C. office.

hong kong

President Trump’s Executive Order Ends Hong Kong Country of Origin

On July 14, 2020, President Trump signed into law an Executive Order that ends Hong Kong’s differential treatment compared to the People’s Republic of China (“PRC” or “China”). The President’s action follows the Chinese government’s decision in late May to impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong that outlaws any act of “secession,” “terrorism,” or “collusion” with a foreign power.

The United States government objects to this legislation and believes that it has compromised Hong Kong’s autonomous status, which justified  Hong Kong’s differential treatment from China for a number of purposes. As President Trump stated following the signing of the Executive Order, “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China…no special privileges, no special economic treatments and no export of sensitive technologies.”

As a result of the Executive Order, any imported Hong Kong origin goods will now be considered Chinese origin and will be subject to the Section 301 tariffs on certain Chinese imports, or any antidumping or countervailing duty orders applicable to China.

The Executive Order also eliminates any passport preferences for persons from Hong Kong as opposed to those from the PRC and revokes any Export Administration Regulation (“EAR”) license exceptions for exports, re-exports, and in-country transfers pertaining to Hong Kong. The order also authorizes steps to end other forms of U.S.-Hong Kong cooperation unrelated to international trade, such as the Fulbright exchange program.

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Robert Stang is a Washington, D.C.-based partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. He leads the firm’s Customs group.

Jeffrey Neeley is a Washington-based partner with the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP. He leads the firm’s International Trade Remedies team.

Turner Kim is an Assistant Trade Analyst in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Washington D.C. office.

Camron Greer is an Assistant Trade Analyst in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Washington D.C. office.

phase one

The Phase One Deal: How We Got Here And What Is Next

President Trump announced that the United States and China had reached a partial “Phase One” trade deal in mid-October, signaling a pause in the trade tensions that have steadily grown over the past two and half years.  While the precise goals of the President’s trade action against China have always been vague, there was an unquestionable desire to change certain structural issues of the Chinese economy, particularly with the country’s intellectual property and forced technology practices.  

To put the proposed Phase One deal in its proper context, this article breaks down (1) the various stages of escalation since President Trump took office, (2) what’s known about the contents of agreement, and (3) the potential risks that could derail the deal from being signed.  

The Escalation of the Trade War

The President’s most high-profile actions against China have been his use of long-thought-defunct trade authority, Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 (“Section 301”).  Section 301 grants the President the authority to impose tariffs on countries if it determines that the acts, policies, or practices of a country are unjustifiable and burden or restrict U.S. commerce.  

Following a lengthy investigation, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (“USTR”) officially determined in March 2018 that China’s policies result in harm to the U.S. economy.  Simultaneously, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum outlining a series of remedies that his Administration would take in response to these findings, most notably the imposition of tariffs.  

President Trump’s Section 301 tariffs currently cover most products imported from China, after having been rolled out in four different lists:  

-List 1 of the Section 301 tariffs went into effect July 2018 and imposes a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion worth of goods from China.  

-List 2 went into effect August 2018 and imposes a 25 percent tariff on $16 billion worth of goods.  

-Following China’s retaliatory tariffs on Lists 1 and 2, the United States announced List 3, which began imposing a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion of Chinese products in September 2018.  The List 3 tariffs were increased to 25 percent after negotiations between the two countries fell apart.

-List 4 could hit almost $300 billion more of Chinese products.  Part of the list (“List 4a”) went into effect on September 1 and imposes 15 percent tariffs on $112 billion of Chinese products.  The U.S. is scheduled to impose 15 percent tariffs on the remaining $160 billion of the list (“List 4b”) starting December 15.  

The Trump Administration has taken aggressive action to increase pressure on China that goes well beyond the Section 301 tariffs.  Since President Trump took office, he has targeted China’s steel and aluminum industries through global tariffs on these products. He has (at least temporarily) sanctioned major Chinese tech firms or restricted their ability to do business with the United States.  He has sanctioned Chinese individuals and entities connected to North Korea and others related to the treatment of the Uighurs in western China. He signed into law a major expansion of authority for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (“CFIUS”), which has immediate and future implications for Chinese investment in the United States. 

Additionally, the Administration has moved closer to Taiwan. President Trump has authorized significant military sales to Taiwan, and as President-elect, he took a call from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen, the first such call by a U.S. President or President-elect since the 1970s. The Administration has either directly or indirectly made clear that these restrictions, sanctions, and geopolitical relationships can be used as points of leverage in the trade negotiations.  

The Phase One Deal

Many details about what is included in the Phase One deal remain unknown.  In announcing the deal, President Trump said “We have a great deal. We’re papering it now.  Over the next three or four or five weeks, hopefully, it’ll get finished. A tremendous benefit to our farmers, technology, and many other things — the banking industry, financial services.”  As the two sides “paper” the agreement into finalized text, what is known about the deal has come largely from statements made by both sides. We know that as part of the deal, the United States will not pursue plans to increase the List 1-3 tariffs from 25 percent to 30 percent. We also know China plans to make large purchases of U.S. agricultural products.  

There are reports the Phase One deal could also delay or cancel the planned List 4b tariffs. Other reports suggest that China is seeking additional eliminations or reductions of the Section 301 tariffs.  

As for the structural changes to the Chinese economy sought by the Trump Administration, it seems as though they could be mentioned in the Phase One deal, but the real work will be addressed in subsequent phases.  

What Comes Next

The stars were aligning for President Trump and President Xi to sign the Phase One deal at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (“APEC”) meetings in Santiago, Chile this week.  Unfortunately, the APEC meetings were unexpectedly cancelled due to protests in the country, highlighting that a few weeks can feel like an eternity for sensitive trade talks.  

Assuming the U.S. and China can find another location, there are still risks out there that could prevent the deal’s signing.  

One big risk to the deal is the events unfolding in Hong Kong. The Trump Administration has been notably quiet on the protests, outside of President Trump expressing his faith in President Xi to satisfactorily resolve the situation.  The strongest statement from the Administration came from Vice President Pence, who recently said, “[T]he United States will continue to urge China to show restraint, to honor its commitments, and respect the people of Hong Kong.  And to the millions in Hong Kong who have been peacefully demonstrating to protect your rights these past months, we stand with you.”

According to multiple reports, President Trump pledged to Chinese President Xi Jinping that his Administration would remain quiet on the Hong Kong protests throughout the trade talks.  However, the Administration’s hand could be forced if the protests escalate into more sustained violence or if, as is expected, Congress passes legislation in support of Hong Kong with veto-proof majorities.  

Another risk is more vocal opposition from so-called “China hawks” that are dissatisfied that Phase One doesn’t get to the heart of the problems they have with China’s economic practices.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) cautioned the President that he “shouldn’t be giving in to China unless we get something big in return.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) doubted China’s commitment to the deal long-term, saying, “I do believe that [China] will agree to things they don’t intend to comply with.” There are reports that China hawks within the White House are also pushing the President to reject the deal, notably Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro.  

A deal to end or pause the trade tensions between the United States and China would provide the private sector with more certainty as they make decisions about 2020 and beyond.  The Phase One deal looks to provide at least a pause, but geopolitical actions or domestic opposition could still derail the agreement before it is signed.   

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Rory Murphy is an Associate at Squire Patton Boggs, where his practice focuses on providing US public policy guidance, global cultural and business diplomacy advice that helps US and foreign governments and entities with doing business around the globe.