Two contrasting approaches to using the WTO for China-related IP issues involving technology licensing and forced technology transfer are now pending at the WTO.
The United States initiated a WTO dispute on China’s licensing practices by filing a consultation request on March 23, 2018. Shortly after the filing of that case, Japan, the European Union, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Chinese Taipei requested to join the consultations. The European Union additionally filed its own parallel WTO consultation request on June 1, 2018, with a broader scope. It is too soon to tell which countries will join the EU request.
Both countries timed their requests in conjunction with other trade actions. The WTO case was filed by the United States one day after the Section 301 report was released. The European Union simultaneously filed its case against China with a WTO case against the United States regarding US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
The EU’s approach to this IP case is markedly different from the last time the US filed a WTO dispute involving China’s IP practices (DS/362). At the time that the US filed a request for IP-related cases from China, the EU declined to make a similar transparency request. It also did not join the US as a co-complainant in the ensuing WTO case, nor did it file a parallel complaint, but it did participate as a third-party. By contrast, the EU approach in the current dispute is to both support the US and dig deeper.
The US consultation request was portrayed by USTR as addressing “technology licensing requirements.” The thrust of the complaint involves China “denying foreign patent holders, including U.S. companies, basic patent rights to stop a Chinese entity from using the technology after a licensing contract ends.” The consultation request is therefor somewhat narrow. The US complaint does not specifically address other technology-oriented rights, such as trade secret protection or undisclosed data, nor does it take on the topics set forth in the Section 301 report involving “IP theft.” The consultation request is now numbered WT/DS542/1.
The EU complaint (WT/DS549/1), cites several Chinese measures in addition to those identified in the United States’ consultation request, and invokes more expansive WTO principles and procedures. The additionally cited measures include the “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa  No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法（试行）) which was previously discussed here. The Chinese promulgation of these interim Regulations only five days after the US filed its consultation request, looks to some like another act of synchronized trade diplomacy — in this case as a possible retaliatory act for the 301 report and the WTO case. My guess is that the EU, by referring to these new largely untested regulations is however seeking to address the legality of controls China has additionally imposed on foreigners’ transferring IP out of China.
The EU has also swept in other measures into its complaint, including China’s trade secret law (the Anti-Unfair Competition Law), the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Regulations [sic] of State Administration for Industry and Commerce Administrations on the Prohibition of Abuse of Dominant Market Position, and the Regulation [sic] on the Prohibition of Conduct Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abusing Intellectual Property Rights. The nomenclature the EU uses for these various legal documents appears imprecise. The March 2018 “measures” may properly be classified as “regulations” 法规 issued by the State Council. The SAIC “regulations” should properly be classified as “rules” 部门规章 issued by an administrative agency. This is the nomenclature China set forth in the Report of the Working Party on the Accession of China (WT/ACC/CHN/49), paragraph 66 ( the “Protocols of Accession“). The Working Party Report nomenclature establishes clear legislative hierarchies pursuant to China’s Law on Legislation.
The EU also argues that China’s appears to directly or indirectly “nullifying or impairing” the benefits accruing to the European Union and its Member States that were expected by China’s WTO accession, thereby opening the door to broader arguments regarding how China may deprive WTO members of the benefits they legitimately expected while at the same time not violating the literal language of any commitment (See, e.g., Art. 64 of the TRIPS Agreement). These arguments have been subject to a moratorium and have historically been difficult to assert, but in my estimation have some relevance to the current situation in China. The EU is also seeking to utilize provisions in the WTO that address the “impartial and reasonable application and administration of its laws, regulations and other measures” (Article X.3(a) of the GATT 1994 and Paragraph 2(A)2 of the Protocol on the Accession of the People’s Republic of China to the WTO). The “impartial administration” requirement, as found in the Protocols of Accession requires China to “apply and administer in a uniform, impartial and reasonable manner all its laws, regulations and other measures … pertaining to or affecting … trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (“TRIPS”)” (p. 74).
Contrasting the actions of the US and the EU, the EU complaint urges a legalistic and multilateral resolution of trade disputes, using doctrine that has proven difficult to assert. The approach also appears to reflect a waning confidence by some that China today in fact has an effective and independent legal and political system which “impartially administers its laws”. My former colleague at Fordham, Prof. Carl Minzner describes some of these political reversals in his recent book End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (2018).
The US approach, by contrast, uses the 301 report to point to perceived technological threats, manifested through industrial plans, vague laws, industrial espionage and unfairly adjudicated cases, to make the point that the WTO might be inappropriate to resolve its concerns. In a sense, the US assumed in the Section 301 report that in the party- and plan-controlled China of today, with a resurgent state sector, there aren’t many “laws, regulations and other measures” to administer impartially. The United States therefor pays scant attention in the 301 to the numerous legal reforms and civil adjudication in intellectual property that have taken place in recent years. The United States approach is also more broadly consistent with the perspectives of Prof. Mark Wu at Harvard Law School who prophetically pointed out in his article “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance” that “the WTO faces a challenge: can the institution craft a predictable and fair set of legal rules to address new trade-distortive behavior arising out of China, Inc.? If not, key countries may turn away from the WTO to address these issues.”
While the EU and the US likely have common goals with respect to China’s IP regime, I believe that they likely could also learn something from each other in their strategies and perhaps they will as these cases progress.
Bottom photo by Mark Cohen of Charleston, SC United States Custom House.