Political pressures have led the U.S. Department of Commerce to launch countervailing duty investigations against China while insisting that it cannot use market information from within China to measure the alleged subsidies because China is a non-market economy. That political reality contravenes the principles embodied in U.S. law. Subsidies are found and measured according to the market distortion they cause. Where there is no market, there can be no market distortion. It is not possible for China to have developed markets sufficiently to be subject to subsidies allegations and investigations, yet have no markets by which to ascertain and measure the subsidies.
The problem that pervades the United States’ countervailing duty investigations of China is an attitude, which has at least three manifestations.
- There is the Department’s confusion of methodologies used in dumping and countervailing duty investigations. In dumping cases involving non-market economies, the law expressly allows the Department to seek out surrogate values from other countries. In theory, at least, this exercise is fairly precise: the cost of a nail in India might substitute for the cost of the same nail in China. The Department, however, has taken to utilizing this methodology in countervailing duty cases where the law does not authorize it and the measurements are not remotely so precise.The consequence is that the Department ignores prevailing market conditions within China in favor of data from hand-selected countries to determine the existence and amount of a countervailable subsidy in China. The Department is having the market issue both ways: China is enough of a market economy for government subsidies to cause distortions, but not enough of one – in any sector – to resort to prices in China that are less likely to show the existence of a subsidy.
- There is a lack of recognition and appreciation of China’s radical transition to a market economy. The People’s Republic is privatizing, and creating competition, at a feverish pace. Its central planning is indicative and no longer directive; its collectives are giving way to individual entrepreneurs and its controls are yielding to markets. The Department verified that state-owned enterprises are operating autonomously, for profit, without government direction. They are seen as benefiting the people collectively instead of a small group of private owners, but contrary to the Department’s preconceived notions, that collective benefit makes them no less market-driven than privately-owned entities. Many of the changes in China’s economy are taking place in weeks and months, not years or decades. Countervailable subsidy allegations of a practice in June quickly become outdated as the practice disappears in September. The United States’ failure to recognize and appreciate these changes is a bad policy toward China because it carries all the wrong incentives: offsetting programs that have been abolished or expired creates liabilities that discourage abandoning the programs, or beg for replacements. It teaches all the wrong lessons about opening markets, because what it really communicates is that the United States is closing its own.
- There is the allegation that officials of the People’s Republic of China do not always cooperate with the Department or do all they could to answer questions and assist with the Department in its investigation. The allegation is worse than undiplomatic. It violates the comity of nations by refusing to respect the acts of foreign sovereigns within their own jurisdictions. By presuming that China must collect and have information that, within its own jurisdiction it says it does not collect and does not have the Department violates a principle respected formally by the United States since the Supreme Court first pronounced on it in 1797. This third manifestation of attitude – the willingness to deny the veracity of official testimony without contrary information or evidence – tarnishes the Department’s investigations. As a matter of comity, the Department owes good faith respect to Chinese officials as it would expect them to respect officials of the Department.
Comity is not merely an element of diplomacy. It is an obligation of international practice and a legitimate expectation of our friendly trading partners. Chinese officials are entitled to be believed absent strong evidence to the contrary. The Department breaches its trust when it makes decisions based on nothing more than hostile beliefs. Insisting something must exist when told it doesn’t, and having no evidence to the contrary, is nothing more than a hostile belief. What is at stake is much more than the fate of any particular exported product. What is at stake is the good faith of American trade relations with China.
Hostile attitudes ought not to interfere with respect for the law and sound policy. In this instance, there is an additional concern. Much of the American objection to alleged Chinese subsidies could now be said, at least since September 15, 2008, about the United States. It probably has been necessary to combat global rececession with massive government economic interventions, but it has made much more of the American economy dependent on government support. We analyzed those troubling contradictions in formal comments filed with the United States Trade Representative in January 2008 on Applying the CVD Laws to China.