Thursday, October 13, 2011

A legitimate beef with China

A leader in this week's Economist, concerning the US Senate's passage of a bill intended to punish China for currency manipulation, warns that, however right the Senate may be about currency manipulation, passage of the bill would risk an unnecessary trade war.

The Economist goes on to say that America does have "legitimate beefs with China, but this bill is the wrong way to address them. It is legally flawed, economically dangerous and unnecessary." If passed, China would surely have a legitimate claim against the US through the WTO, and would almost certainly retaliate with its own trade-limiting measures.

While I understand the value of this measure as a political tactic for Senators who are part of the most hated US Congress in history, the fact is that there are better ways for America to get what it wants (not that Congress even cares).

While the WTO mechanisms designed to facilitate open trade are slow to work, China recognizes them as legitimate and has generally adhered to their judgments in the past. Although, as The Economist admits, currency manipulation is not addressed in WTO rules, America indeed has "legitimate beefs" with China that could be addressed under the WTO. Yet, for some reason, the US Congress chooses to focus on currency, and the Obama administration apparently chooses to look the other way when it comes to some of China's real WTO violations.

While I haven't cataloged all of China's violations, I know that there are several going on in the auto industry that no one seems to think are worth calling China on. For example, a couple of key measures in China's WTO accession agreement forbid China from conditioning investment in China on technology transfer and local content requirement. (This agreement dates back to 2001, by the way, so it's nothing new.)

As for the tech transfer part of the rules, China's ability to apply pressure to foreign automakers to transfer technology in exchange for permission to expand in the country has been well-documented. (A couple of example articles are here and here.)

The latest attempt by the Chinese to adhere to the letter of the law while blatantly violating its spirit includes holding off on investment approval until the foreign company "voluntarily" offers to contribute technology toward establishing a Chinese brand with its (state-owned) Chinese partner. Peugeot's CEO was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that, cooperating on building a Chinese brand is now "part of the deal."

And the automakers involved in this attempted extortion have no incentive to complain about it for fear of losing their access, all the while knowing that their competitors are all doing the same thing.

Okay, you may say, perhaps China's violations in this case would be too difficult to prove under the WTO's mechanisms. After all, the foreign automakers all appear to be "voluntarily" contributing technology in these cases, and anyway, none of them is complaining. Perhaps.

Then how about a more obvious violation of the rules? In this case, it involves the imposition of illegal local content requirements.

This actually surfaced a few weeks ago, and I commented about it on twitter, but only my friend @alexwoods5 seemed to think it was an issue worth being concerned about. The issue in question arose from a recent Wikileaks cable in which an employee of Ford in China revealed to US diplomatic personnel that Ford's operation in China is subject to a 40 percent local content requirement. This is the relevant section:
¶9. (SBU) All of Ford's parts suppliers must meet the Chinese Government's rules of minimum 40 percent local content by value, Chuang explained.
Does that not sound like a local content requirement? Could this have been a condition for Ford's recent investment in new factories in China?

I even emailed an acquaintance of mine at Ford, twice, seeking some sort of explanation or confirmation. The fact that he has yet even to respond with a "no comment" tells me that this may be worth investigating.

But is the Obama administration investigating it? If not, why not?

I know that the administration, or at least certain individuals in it, understand that the currency bill passed by the Senate would do great harm to both global trade and to America's relationship with China. But if they want to avoid such unpleasantness, why not at least make an effort to make China follow the agreements it has signed?