Opinion

In US-China Trade Disputes, the WTO Usually Sides with the United States

us china trade war

Trade wars are not as easy to win as President Donald Trump thought. But the United States generally wins trade disputes, particularly against China, when the case is brought to the World Trade Organization (WTO). This conclusion from the data is at odds with what Trump has asserted in his threats to pull the United States out of the WTO. In 2018, he declared that the WTO was set up “to benefit everybody but us” and added: “We lose the lawsuits, almost all of the lawsuits in the WTO.”

Table 1 shows that Trump’s perception was wrong, at least with respect to China: Over the last 16 years, US officials have challenged Chinese practices 23 times in the WTO; the win-loss record is 19-0, with four cases pending. In the most recent decision, the WTO panel found that China’s agricultural subsidies are inconsistent with WTO rules, upholding US claims.

Table 1. WTO disputes between China and the United States, 2002-18
Case statusComplainant
United StatesChina
Total number of WTO cases2315
Settled via/during consultation91
Ruling favoring complainant104
Ruling favoring respondent01
Split decision03
Pending46
Length of time
Average number of months from initial consultation to settlement82
Average number of months from initial consultation to panel decision2826
Sources: World Trade Organization (WTO); US Trade Representative (USTR) Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report (various issues).
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