The 'China, Inc.' Challenge to Global Trade Governance

62 Pages Posted: 15 May 2016 Last revised: 22 Oct 2016

Date Written: May 13, 2016


In the past decade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has adjudicated over forty disputes involving China and other powerful economies. These cases are often trumpeted as a sign of the enduring strength of the trade regime and the efficacy of international law in managing geopolitical tensions associated with China’s rise. This Article suggests that this positive assessment obfuscates dangers lurking on the horizon. It explains why the rise of China presents a major challenge to the multilateral trade regime. At the heart of this challenge is the fact that China’s economic structure is sui generis — having evolved in a manner largely unforeseen by those negotiating WTO treaty law.

As a result, the WTO is equipped to deal effectively with only a limited range of disputes — those in which Chinese policies largely resemble elements of other alternative economic structures. Outside of this set of issues, the WTO faces two very different but equally serious challenges. The first is reinterpreting certain legal concepts to adapt and fit an unforeseen Chinese context. The second is deciding whether to expand the scope of its legal rules to accommodate issues that currently fall outside its jurisdiction. This Article explores options for meeting these challenges. It suggests that the most likely outcome is one in which China’s rise will exacerbate the diminishing centrality of WTO law for global trade governance.

Keywords: China, WTO law, international trade

JEL Classification: F10, K33

Suggested Citation

Wu, Mark, The 'China, Inc.' Challenge to Global Trade Governance (May 13, 2016). Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 57, 1001-1063 (2016), Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 16-35, Available at SSRN:

Mark Wu (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Griswold Hall Room 302
1525 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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