Over the seven-year life of the WTO trade negotiations known as the Doha Round, the US has encouraged China to take a larger role in the talks. Be careful what you wish for. The recent failed Doha talks occurred in large part because China decided to throw its weight behind India over the issue of emergency tariffs meant to protect farmers.
Doha’s most recent demise wasn’t a surprise – the setbacks have become a tiresome ritual. But the fact that Beijing was willing to be so publicly identified as a spoiler in these negotiations raised the eyebrows of some analysts who spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW.
China has undoubtedly benefited hugely from joining the WTO, but there are Chinese officials who believe the system remains stacked against it. As China rises, so does protectionism among its trading partners, as evidenced by the rising number of WTO complaints filed against the mainland. This defensive attitude has been exacerbated by US election-year rhetoric, which has seen the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada called into question.
Given its growing global clout, the Chinese government must have decided that it could suffer the bad international PR, and that Doha was an opportunity to make a point.
Furthermore, the direct benefit to China from a successful Doha Round was never clear. What exactly did Beijing want its negotiators to bring home from the talks? China at present is looking for clear benefits from bilateral trade deals rather than the less-tangible, long-term (though undeniably real) gains arising from broad expansions of international trade.
The latest Doha collapse may not foreshadow a broad realignment of China’s relationship with the WTO but it is further evidence that multilateral trade agreements are becoming less relevant to the country’s needs.
For now, China has sided with the developing-world nations. But these countries may not have necessarily found their champion in China. One trade expert said he believed China would play a “wild card” role in the WTO commensurate with its bi-polar economic identity – at times siding with the developing world, at others with the developed world.
Whether China can be a bridge between those two worlds at the negotiating table – as many have long hoped – is still up for debate.