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Visitors walk past a chart showing China’s soaring GDP since 2012 and a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting China’s achievements under Xi’s leadership, Beijing, Oct. 19, 2017 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

Under Trump, the U.S. Has Stopped Leading the WTO. Can China Fill the Gap?

Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017

Little is expected from the World Trade Organization’s 11th ministerial conference next week in Argentina. U.S. President Donald Trump’s hostility to multilateral agreements is a serious impediment, and American trade officials engaged in preliminary talks in Geneva have said they do not expect, nor want, any negotiated agreements to come out of the meeting in Buenos Aires. This is despite the fact that several items on the WTO’s agenda, including e-commerce, constraints on trade-distorting agricultural policies and constraints on fishing subsidies, have been U.S. priorities in the past.

By contrast, China has signaled throughout this year that it supports open global markets and a strong multilateral trade system. In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days before Trump’s inauguration, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended globalization. He recognized the need to address the downsides of globalization, but warned of the dangers of protectionism. In March, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli reiterated Beijing’s commitment to free trade and specifically called for strengthening the WTO. Xi echoed the warnings about protectionism in his address to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam last month, where he took the stage just after Trump had railed against “unfair” trade and singled out the WTO in a blistering and starkly different speech. Could China help to fill the void left by the United States vacating its traditional leadership role in global trade? ...

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