China’s WTO accession: 15 years on Taking, shaking or shaping WTO rules?

Written by Gisela Grieger,
Graphs by Christian Dietrich,

China on a map

© beugdesign / Fotolia

11 December 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2001, after arduous negotiations with key WTO members, China agreed not only to extensive market access commitments but also to substantial non-reciprocal rules obligations. This was unprecedented in WTO history. Most WTO disputes involving China, notably in the field of trade remedies, have been linked to these tailor-made rules for China. China has exhibited timely and qualitatively sound compliance with WTO rulings. But its narrow letter of the law compliance has at times been found not to reflect the spirit of the legal provisions at issue, with WTO-inconsistent regulations having remained in place or re-emerged.

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In the Doha Development Round of WTO multilateral negotiations China has so far taken a backseat rather than a leadership role. Domestic resistance to reform in sensitive areas on economic and ideological grounds has been a crucial factor in China’s absence from the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement. Past US opposition has been key for its non-participation in the Trade in Services Agreement. Uncertainties about ratification by the US Congress of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and future US trade policy under President Donald Trump may reverse the past trend of China’s marginalisation from shaping global rules outside the WTO. At the same time this may lower China’s ambition to shift gradually from rather shallow to EU-style ‘deep and comprehensive’ free trade agreements (FTAs) and may induce it to promote its own rules more assertively by leveraging its economic weight in predominantly bilateral relations under its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

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