From February 26th through the 27th I attended a symposium at the University of Texas in Austin, TX on China’s Emergence: Effects on Trade, Investment, and Regulatory Law.
Here are some thoughts on the more notable issues raised at the symposium:
Trade Imbalances, Subsidies, and the Market Distortion of Prices
Scott McBride of the US Dept. of Commerce, speaking as a private citizen, discussed countervaling duties, world poverty, and market distortions (my terms, not his) that contribute to inflate the real prices of goods. This particular point was only a small portion of his talk on the “US Government’s Recent Responses to China’s Enforcement Problems and Countervailable Programs.”
McBride claimed that one reason for American subsidization of farmers in the cotton industry is in order to combat cheap Chinese cotton. However, although US subsidies are aimed at protecting American farmers from subsidized Chinese cotton imports, the subsidies also hurt the four major C-4 African cotton manufacturing countries (Mali, Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso). These African countries lack the resources to subsidize their crops, or to increase their crops’ efficiency. Although African cotton would be relatively competitive in a trade-barrier-less world, it cannot hope to contend with cotton-subsidizing American policies, and a China that supports its cotton industry and has a relatively weak currency. He went on to state that the US’s position is generally that it will not drop its subsidies until China drops its support for its domestic cotton industry.
Extra research by China Comment revealed that the United States is also bargaining for enhanced market access to developing countries’ markets before it will significantly drop its cotton subsidies (AllAfrica, October 2008).
According to a source cited in a CRS report (Congressional Research Services), “cotton producers in developing countries (not just Africa) face annual losses of about $9.5 billion as a result of subsidies… the United States provides the largest amount of subsidies to its cotton producers, which it estimated at $2.3 billion in 2001/2002. Other countries’ subsidies in 2001/02 included China ($1.2 billion), European Union (EU) countries Greece and Spain ($716 million), Turkey ($59 million), Brazil ($50 million), and Egypt ($29 million).” (CRS). “Washington has paid out $2 billion (1 billion pounds) to $4 billion a year in subsidies in recent years to the 25,000 U.S. cotton farmers who export 80 percent of their output and account for 40 percent of cotton traded internationally around the world.” (Reuters; July 24, 2008 / See Also The Guardian; July 2003)
(1) American subsidy policies that are aimed to combat unfair trade advantages gained by one country often have a double-effect that causes repercussions in (arguably innocent) third-party countries. (This is something to keep in mind when well-meaning NGOs suggest sending aid to Africa. Sometimes, the better policy may be to drop trade barriers first. Still, the African countries often wish to keep their own restrictive trade barriers.)
(2) The more America or China subsidizes their agricultural industries, the more other countries begin to subsidize their agricultural industries. These subsidy policies lead to a market-distorting situation similar to that suffered by the debt-fueled American mortgage-industry boom. Ultimately, the policy benefits no one except subsidy-receiving farmers. Meanwhile, national debts rise to unsustainable proportions.
In the interests of increased efficiency, China Comment supports trade liberalization and progress such as that imagined by the WTO’s heretofore disappointing Doha round. (A full discussion of exactly what details of trade liberalization would be fairest is far beyond the scope of this article. Even full-time economists and government negotiators have difficulty getting their minds around all the nuances of the Doha round in order to craft a compromise. Perhaps that is why Doha has been so much of a disappointment.)
(Part II will include commentary on presentations from Raj Bhala (Law Professor at the University of Kansas), and John Greenwald (International Trade Lawyer).