26 Nov 2019

China as a WTO developing member, is it a problem?

Weinian Hu

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The developing member status is an area identified for WTO reform by the US, the EU and the Trilateral Trade Ministerial Cooperation. The grievance is that some of the world’s top trading nations that declared themselves as developing members are taking advantage of the 155 special and deferential treatment provisions embedded to date across the range of WTO agreements, resorting to weaker commitments, undermining the functioning of the multilateral trading system and impeding the negotiation of future agreements.

The developing member status per se is not a problem in relation to China’s commitments undertaken at its WTO accession, neither following accession as far as the three agreements that China participated in are concerned. China relinquished most special and differential treatment provisions at its accession, and many of its commitments are WTO-plus in nature. Within this remit, the problem lies in China’s lack of faithful compliance with certain accession commitments, such as notification and transparency. However, China’s developing member status could be a problem for the ongoing fisheries subsidies negotiations, especially given its world-leading fishing capacity. This presumption could also be true for other negotiations, for example those regarding the joint initiative on the trade-related aspects of e-commerce.
China’s persistent claim of developing member status at the WTO may be understood as a result of political positioning, too, because championing “South-South cooperation” is a strategic priority for China’s diplomacy.