The World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body issued a report on March 11, 2011 in which the People’s Republic of China broke a skein of legal losses by recovering some of the ground taken by a WTO panel last autumn. The Chinese Government loudly celebrated a major victory, while U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk denounced a “clear case of overreaching” in a “deeply troubling” decision of the Appellate Body.

Were one to listen to the rhetoric of the two governments too closely, one might perceive the WTO proceedings as more of a political than legal affair. The Chinese did not win that much, and the United States did not lose that much. There had to have been powerful political motivations for the over-wrought pronouncements of the two sides.

China elected to consolidate complaints regarding the final Department of Commerce (“Commerce”) determinations in four different antidumping/countervailing duty investigations – hence, eight investigations into four different products – into one WTO complaint. It did not appeal any of the determinations to the U.S. Court of International Trade (“CIT”), and did not challenge any of the four final determinations of the U.S. International Trade Commission in any forum. Hence, what could have been twelve WTO cases and a like number of CIT cases came down to one WTO case.

Double Counting

China complained of many things in the WTO case, but here, too, there was selectivity. The only objection raised regarding the four antidumping final determinations was that Commerce was double-counting remedies, applying duties twice on the same cost or expense. Allegedly subsidized electricity, for example, was countervailed, but also compared to an external surrogate value as an inflated cost in the dumping case and assigned part of the antidumping margin. Meanwhile, China challenged virtually all of the subsidy findings.

The CIT already had ruled that Commerce could not investigate simultaneously for the same merchandise, over the same time period, both antidumping and subsidy allegations, because applying a non-market economy methodology in the antidumping investigation yields a double remedy. Commerce had concluded, in 2007, that it could investigate subsidy allegations in a non-market economy, notwithstanding the definition of subsidies as government financial contributions that are market-distorting.

The CIT did not deny Commerce its desire to conduct subsidy investigations of non-market economies. Instead, it ruled that Commerce would have to figure out how to avoid double-counting when conducting antidumping and countervailing duty investigations simultaneously.

The CIT decision, in the OTR case(GPX Intern. Tire Corp. v. United States, No. 08-00285, 715 F.Supp.2d 1337 (Ct. Int’l Trade 2010)), is on appeal before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”). The Appellate Body decision ought to strengthen China’s hand in that appeal, albeit that the Chinese Government is not a party. U.S. courts have never treated WTO decisions as dispositive, nor even necessarily persuasive, but a NAFTA panel did apply the Charming Betsy doctrine to require Commerce to interpret U.S. law compatibly with international obligations whenever possible. The CIT here has said subsidy investigations of non-market economies are permissible, but not in conjunction with dumping investigations. The CAFC, were it to uphold the CIT, would rule consistently with the international obligation articulated in the Appellate Body report. There is no U.S. court ruling putting U.S. law at variance with the international obligation.

This Chinese victory, then, already had been won. The CAFC could have, and still could, overturn the CIT. The CAFC could do so without reference to the Charming Betsy doctrine and applicable precedent unless the doctrine were invoked and well-argued by counsel for the Chinese party. Even then, the CAFC ruling, not the Appellate Body report, will determine U.S. law on this question. Chinese authorities often still insist that the United States cannot investigate subsidies allegations while denying China market economy status. That issue, however, is not in play in the Appellate Body report. Nor would its resolution solve China’s problem with respect to Commerce’s methodology.

Extending a cramped WTO Appellate Body report interpreting Article 14(d) of the Subsidies and Countervailing Measures Agreement in Canada’s complaint against the United States over the use of cross-border benchmarks for analyzing softwood lumber prices, Commerce has treated China in countervailing duty cases the way it attempted to treat Canada. Inasmuch as Canada could not be accused of being a non-market economy, Commerce there established that the methodology of using prices from outside a country in a subsidies case is not exclusive to non-market economies. China did not seem to argue at the WTO any defect in Commerce’s interpretation of the Appellate Body’s softwood lumber report. By accepting the interpretation, it sealed its own fate.

The recognition now of China as a market economy would change very little, if anything, for China in countervailing duty cases. Applying the reasoning applied to Canada, Commerce would continue to select price benchmarks from outside China, thereby utilizing the same methodology it uses now. Indeed, China’s pleading for market economy recognition could lead to Commerce’s solution to the puzzle it was presented by the CIT: as with any other market economy, Commerce could bring dumping and subsidies cases simultaneously against a China recognized as a market economy, and nonetheless could use a countervailing duty methodology founded on the same principles as the NME dumping methodology.

For these reasons – that the CIT already had delivered this victory; that recognition as a market economy could solve Commerce’s problem more than China’s – both China and the United States have exaggerated the significance of the Appellate Body report. There may be powerful political reasons on both sides for the exaggeration, not to be found in a reasoned interpretation of the law.

The Other Chinese Victory

The other Chinese victory accorded by the Appellate Body on March 11 is little more revolutionary than the decision on double-counting, but it may have a greater impact. Commerce has been treating automatically all Chinese state-owned enterprises (“SOE”) as “public bodies,” controlled and directed by the government. This operating assumption enabled Commerce to treat the provision of inputs in the manufacturing process from SOEs as financial contributions because they automatically came from the government. Then Commerce only had to show that the price of the input, when compared to a price from outside China, was less in order to measure the size of the subsidy.

Notwithstanding the automatic treatment of SOEs as public bodies, Commerce already was completing the analysis as to whether SOEs provided inputs at prices that would make them countervailable. The Appellate Body decision will require a more complete analysis every time. Instead of assuming government control, such that the SOE is acting as a public body, Commerce will have to develop evidence that the provision of the input is not a purely economic or commercial act.

The Uruguay Round Agreements recognized that state-owned enterprises could be commercial and had to be treated without assumptions about state direction or control. Commerce’s automatic judgment was at variance with this recognition; the Appellate Body corrected Commerce by requiring it to respect the proposition that state-owned enterprises are legitimate entities in the world trading system. Were it otherwise, the United States would have a very difficult time dealing with General Motors and Chrysler, among other examples. Consequently, the Appellate Body did not take a position that could be considered very remarkable.

The United States pretends that other countries have SOEs, but that all enterprises in the United States are private. As long as that fiction is maintained, the United States will continue to treat SOEs as different and as state-controlled, whether to greater or lesser degrees. Beyond trade, the Appellate Body report theoretically could have additional impact were the definition of the SOE as a non-public body to evolve and become more accepted in the United States, but the Appellate Body report, as a legal matter, pertains only to trade, and only to subsidies disputes, nothing more.

The Losses

China lost everything else. All bank loans from state-owned banks automatically are suspect and subject to comparison for loan terms with banks outside China. There was no effective challenge to the U.S. use of out-of-country benchmarks because China’s complaint was focused on the principle rather than the particulars. The principle of comparing land values to property outside China was endorsed by the panel and left untouched by the Appellate Body; the absurdity of comparing rural Shandong Province to urban Bangkok was permitted without comment. Every other Commerce judgment about subsidies was upheld.

Because none of these issues has been adjudicated in U.S. courts, they all remain subject to challenge. The WTO did not specifically adjudicate them. However, Commerce will continue its practice with respect to all of them, and over the next cases will establish administrative practice difficult for China, as a result of neglect, to overcome.

Winning And Losing Less Than Imagined

The WTO’s decisions have only prospective effect. In addition, the United States treats every defeat as sui generis, applicable to the immediate case and no others. The United States likely will ignore the decision on double remedies, preferring the decision of the Court of Appeals. It may ignore the decision on SOEs except for the administrative reviews in the four cases brought through the WTO appeals process. It likely will promise implementation, take the maximum “reasonable period of time” possible, fail to implement to China’s satisfaction, and oblige China to request a Section 21.5 compliance panel. Consequently, it could take China years to achieve compliance from the Appellate Body decision, and then may enjoy a very limited victory. All the while, the United States Congress will decry the Appellate Body and seek to build pressure against adverse decisions like a bench coach harassing basketball referees. It was not inappropriate, as seen from Congress, that the Appellate Body Report came with March Madness.

Such a limited outcome will be the product of Chinese decisions to rely on the WTO instead of U.S. courts; to consolidate cases instead of appealing them separately; of exaggerating publicly its victory so as to arouse public (and consequently political) resistance in the United States. It will also be the product of the WTO’s institutional weakness, limited to prospective and indirect enforcement, and then only with the cooperation of the parties.

It will be important for both parties to reduce popular expectations and to manage disappointments. Otherwise, in their competition to celebrate the virtues of the WTO, they will undermine the very institution upon which both, for political if not legal and economic reasons, have decided to rely.