This paper reviews the WTO Appellate Body Report on China – Measures Affecting Imports of Automobile Parts (WT/DS342/AB/R, 15 December 2008). This dispute concerns a set of regulatory measures imposing a 25% ‘charge’ on imported automobile parts used in the manufacture of motor vehicles in China. The main legal question in this case consisted of the nature of this charge as either a border charge subject to China's tariff concessions or an internal charge, subject to the basic nondiscrimination requirement of GATT Article III. In our report, we examine the reasoning of the Appellate Body relating to the difference between these two types of charges. We discuss the role and relevance of this distinction in the GATT/WTO legal system in general, and for the purposes of resolving this dispute in particular. We also address the important systemic question relating to the review of a Member's domestic laws for purposes of determining their GATT/WTO consistency. This was an important issue in this case, as China claimed that the Panel misunderstood the meaning of the relevant Decree and requested the Appellate Body to review the Panel's erroneous reading of this Decree. We discuss the Appellate Body's reasoning relating to the review of domestic laws by Panels and the Appellate Body and express concern over the distinction drawn by the Appellate Body between legal and factual elements of relevance in the interpretation of such laws.
The ‘economic bone’ in this case is less straightforward to split than the legal one. In legal terms, the Appellate Body's decision is a time-consistent one, but, in economic terms, it is not clear if it is also a welfare-optimal one. The main reason is that many questions relevant to the case were left unaddressed by the Appellate Body. Due to the lack of factual evidence to substantiate its allegations, the Panel's ruling remains rather speculative on certain accounts. For this purpose, we engage in our own examination of the facts, using mainly a unique dataset of Chinese firm-level data. We analyze issues of ownership in China's car industry, the growth of the import-competing Chinese industry over time, the elasticity of the demand for cars, and duty pass-through, etc. The purpose is to verify more closely who ‘benefits’ and who ‘loses’ from the Chinese import duty so as to understand the economic incentives involved. In this respect, we attempt to determine whether the economics support the conclusion that China pursued a beggar-thy-neighbor policy in the car-part industry.