Fairness and Free Trade

CAMBRIDGE – The global trade system faces an important turning point at the end of this year, one that was postponed when China joined the World Trade Organization almost 15 years ago. The United States and the European Union must decide whether they will begin to treat China as a “market economy” in their trade policies. Unfortunately, even as the battle escalates over the course of this year, the terms of the choice ensure that nothing will be done to address the global trade regime’s deeper flaws.

China’s WTO accession agreement, signed in December 2001, permitted the country’s trade partners to deal with China as a “non-market economy” (NME) for a period of up to 15 years. NME status made it a lot easier for importing countries to impose special tariffs on Chinese exports, in the form of antidumping duties. In particular, they could use production costs in more expensive countries as a proxy for true Chinese costs, increasing both the likelihood of a dumping finding and the estimated margin of dumping.

Today, though many countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and South Korea, have already rewarded China with market-economy status, the world’s two biggest economies, the US and the EU, have not. But, regardless of whether they do, antidumping measures are ill-suited to the task of addressing concerns about unfair trade – not because such concerns are ungrounded, but because they go well beyond dumping. Antidumping facilitates protectionism of the worst kind, while doing nothing for countries that need legitimate policy space.

Economists have never been fond of the WTO’s antidumping rules. From a strictly economic standpoint, pricing below costs is not a problem for the importing economy as long as the firms that engage in the strategy have little prospect of monopolizing the market. That is why domestic competition policies typically require evidence of anti-competitive practices or the likelihood of successful predation. Under WTO rules, however, pricing below costs on the part of exporters is sufficient for imposing import duties, even when it is standard competitive practice – such as during economic downturns.