Is Strict Reciprocity Required for Fair Trade?

34 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2018 Last revised: 27 Aug 2018

See all articles by Daniel C. K. Chow

Daniel C. K. Chow

Ohio State University College of Law

Ian Sheldon

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Agricultural, Environmental & Development Economics


The Administration of Donald J. Trump has repeatedly claimed that reciprocity is required for “fair” trade. While this concept is not new in U.S. political discourse, the Trump Administration’s insistence that strict or absolute reciprocity is required goes beyond any claims by previous U.S. administrations. By strict reciprocity, the United States means that all trade volumes and terms and conditions of trade must be mirror images of each other. As the United States has a trade deficit with all of its largest trading partners, the Trump Administration claims that this is evidence of unfairness in trade harming the United States. In addition, since countries like China have tariff rates (25%) for a particular import, such as automobiles, that are significantly higher than U.S. tariff rates (2.5%) for imported automobiles, this is also evidence of unfair trade that adds to the U.S. trade deficit. Based on this lack of strict reciprocity, the U.S. claims that trade with many of its partners is unfair and has imposed punitive trade sanctions to correct the imbalance.

This article demonstrates that not only is strict reciprocity impossible to achieve in practice, but it is based on a critical misunderstanding of elementary economic concepts, reviewed in this article. Since the Trump Administration has not proven its case that the lack of strict reciprocity is evidence of unfair trade, the United States must either find an alternative justification or withdraw the sanctions.

Keywords: Reciprocity, International Trade Law, International Law, International Economics, World Trade Organization, China

Suggested Citation

Chow, Daniel Chee King and Sheldon, Ian, Is Strict Reciprocity Required for Fair Trade?. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 2019, Forthcoming; Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 454. Available at SSRN:

Daniel Chee King Chow (Contact Author)

Ohio State University College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States
614 292-0948 (Phone)
614 292-3202 (Fax)

Ian Sheldon

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Agricultural, Environmental & Development Economics ( email )

234 Agricultural Administration Building
2120 Fyffe Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1067
United States
614-292-2194 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics