China celebrates 20 years of WTO membership

Industry News | | MIC Customs Solutions |

It is 20 years since China's accession to the WTO was granted.

A forum has been held to mark 20 years since China became the 143rd member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala among those opening the ceremony.

She said this would mark the anniversary of a "pivotal event in the history of the multilateral trading system", something we'll take a look at in more detail here.

History of accession

China officially became a WTO member on December 11th 2001 following an incredible 15 years of negotiations. The country was granted accession provided it adhered to the most stringent and complex set of conditions ever imposed by the governing body.

For example, it had to reduce its overall tariff level from 43 per cent right down to ten per cent by 2005, which was one of the lowest levels in the world. Beijing was also told it must agree to rules that would see other WTO members able to impose trade remedies should there be any market disruptions.

Not every nation in the world was pleased to see China becoming a member, with dean of the China Institute for WTO Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing Tu Xinquan telling the Global Times some industries were "terrified" about a flood of foreign products onto world markets.

However, China remained determined to show it had what it took to become a fully functioning member and reiterated its commitment towards intertwining itself with the global economy even as those doubts were voiced.

Direct effects of WTO membership

There have certainly been some tangible benefits for both China and the world since its accession two decades ago. The Asian nation's international trade has grown six-fold and its total export value share leapt from 4.3 per cent to 15 per cent between 2001 and last year.

At the same time, its import value grew from 3.9 per cent to 11.7 per cent, its GDP rose by an astonishing 816 per cent and it contributed almost 30 per cent to global economic growth.

For other nations, China lowered import tariffs for goods and shortened the customs clearance time for shipments heading towards its borders, creating greater convenience for businesses.

AmCham China President Alan Beebe told the Global Times all this has helped to generate more stability and predictability in the world economy, while Permanent Representative of China to the WTO Ambassador Chenggang Li said the nation is a "vital stabilizer" that is "charting a course for wider opening-up".

In Europe especially, China has become a key market thanks to tariff reductions and customs optimization, something that has allowed businesses there to expand and find greater access to receptive consumers.

Not always plain sailing

Despite all this success, there have been some instances where China has undeniably either stretched WTO rules or disregarded them. For example, it placed export restrictions on metals in 2011, while just last month it blocked all imports from Lithuania.

During a review of trade policy this year, the US and some other member states vented their frustration with Beijing and claimed it frequently subsidizes state-owned firms and coerces smaller governments to accept unfair trade practices.

The US in particular claimed China relentlessly exploits WTO loopholes and wilfully disregards its rules.

For its part, China's commerce minister Wang Wentao rebuffed these accusations and insisted his country remains committed to its membership and to fulfilling all obligations.

Meanwhile, supporters of China have pointed out that the rules of the WTO are becoming insufficient to provide adequate guidance for members - and that Beijing does technically comply with most WTO rulings whenever it is complained about, even if it is after some dragging of feet.

What's next for China and the WTO?

Even as China celebrates this 20-year milestone, there is still likely to be a bumpy road ahead in terms of its global trade relationships. Climate change in particular and the need to reduce carbon emissions are looking to be major sticking points, as is the ongoing pandemic.

Meanwhile, the US remains a major critic of Beijing and seems to be excluding it as it gathers together other WTO members in something akin to a protectionist clique.

In a 2017 report by the United States Trade Representative, it even went so far as to say it had "erred in supporting China's entry into the WTO".

It is perhaps true that Beijing could do more to ensure its trade practices adhere to WTO rules, but its commitment to and effects upon the organization cannot be denied.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala concluded: "The structural transformation triggered by accession-related reforms contributed to China's dynamic growth and modernization. For the WTO, welcoming China marked a significant step towards becoming a truly world organization."