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.
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.
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