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Tariff war: China wins WTO case to sanction $3.6 bilion in US trade

China secured the World Trade Organization’s go-ahead to impose $3.6 billion in sanctions against the US, in a case that predates the tariff war between the world’s two largest economies but may add a layer of tension to ongoing talks.

The damages awarded, in a document released Friday on the Geneva-based organizations’ website, are the third highest in WTO history. The amount is about half of what was requested by China, which argued that some US anti-dumping rules were illegal.

The case began before the 18-month-old trade war between the two nations, which has led to tit-for-tat tariffs covering some $500 billion in goods going in both directions. While the ruling deals with matters outside current negotiations to conclude phase one of a comprehensive trade deal, it gives Beijing a new — and legal — weapon to wield against the Trump administration if it opts to do so.

The ruling also comes as the US is mounting an assault on the WTO’s dispute resolution system, with the current terms of two of the final three judges on its appellate body due to expire in December and Washington blocking new appointments. The Trump administration is likely to cite the case as an example of what it sees as the overreach of the WTO’s dispute system.

China now can ask the WTO’s settlement body to authorise retaliatory tariffs on US goods. The next steps for the US include amending its illegal anti-dumping restrictions on the Chinese products in question, or resolving the dispute directly with China — a move that theoretically could happen as part of the broader trade-war talks between Washington and Beijing.

At issue in the case were US anti-dumping duties imposed on 13 imported Chinese products including machinery, electronics, metals and minerals. It was first brought by China in 2013 and a WTO panel ruled in Beijing’s favour in 2016. The point of contention was the methodology that the US uses to calculate anti-dumping tariffs, and in particular, how Washington uses the controversial method of “zeroing” in those calculations.