While many trade policy observers focus on signs of life from the Doha round of negotiations, arguably more important to the long-run relevance of the WTO is how the United States and China politically manage a number of currently ongoing formal trade disputes. The cases are likely to become political flashpoints not only because they involve major U.S. exporting industries such as Hollywood, music and other media, as well as the struggling automobile firms, but because a full process WTO trade dispute—that would include targeted and WTO-sanctioned U.S. threats of retaliation—would be China’s first such experience in the limelight.
We provide a road map of what to expect from both countries in this WTO process, and we also identify a number of new issues likely to confront Washington and Beijing along the way. While we do draw lessons from how countries have used earlier WTO disputes to manage tensions in bilateral relationships, we also pinpoint limitations as to what can be learned from these earlier episodes given the complexities of trading with China. The politics of handling these particular disputes is especially critical for the international trading system in the context of a global resurgence of protectionist pressures amid the deepening economic crisis.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.