Double Standards in American Trade Policy: Russia and China

JURIST Guest Columnist Kambiz Behi of EnterInvest and JURIST Columnist Edsel Tupaz of Tupaz & Associates examine discrepancies in the treatment of the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation under US trade policy...


On August 22, Russia formally acceded into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as its 156th member. To date, however, the US Congress has not scheduled deliberation of any legislative measures aimed to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status — a requirement under the WTO regulatory framework. Indeed, it seems that Congress may be unable to meaningfully deliberate on Russia's PNTR status in the short-term, since the legislature is still in summer recess. Doubts pervade whether it can vote on the bill during the eight working days in September before Congress leaves Washington for the campaign season.

Looking back, it may seem that Congress is backtracking on any Russian "reset" compared to its treatment towards China in 2000. Why was the Clinton administration and Congress so willing to extend China the PNTR status in 2000 two months prior to China's accession into the WTO, whereas the current congressional mood isn't as urgent? It appears, at least to key members of Congress, that the Russia PNTR bill cannot be disassociated with a parallel bill dealing with Russia's recent human rights track record, namely, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act [PDF].

For years, US-Russian business interests have been lobbying for Russia to be granted PNTR status, but the political climate for passing trade legislation today is less than ideal. Just before leaving for August recess, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that normalizing trade relations would be another "concession" that Russia does not deserve — given that Russia recently received what seemed to many politicians as a "favor" from the US when Washington voted for Russia's accession to the WTO back in December.

However, there can be no doubt that the failure to pass the bill will be hurting US businesses and, ultimately, the domestic job market. In its 18-year-long journey to the WTO, Russia conceded to many of the WTO's demands. Russian ministers consider some of these to be serious concessions and compromises of otherwise exclusively internal sovereign economic space in order to join the "trade club." Among others, these concessions include almost all measures which Western business interests normally favor, including the reduction of tariffs, the application of nondiscriminatory treatment to imports, elimination of export subsidies, and adhering to intellectual property rights and digital trade laws.

Economics aside, the greater question for American policy makers has been a politically charged human rights question. In fact, the extralegal homicide of Sergei Magnitsky is closer to Russia's PNTR deliberation than China's Tiananmen Square massacre is to the Clinton-led grant of PNTR status to China. US President Barack Obama's take today, in the nexus of trade and human rights and within the context of his Russian "reset" policy, may be markedly different from Clinton-style "constructive engagement" in the 1990s. Can one's recent human rights record be a reason for such distinctions?

In almost every index on human rights and the rule of law, China today ranks lower than Russia. Russia is, at least nominally, a constitutional democracy, while China is not. Since China entered the WTO in 2000, reports on China's human rights violations have not tapered. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), last year an estimated half-million people had been subjected to punitive detention without charge or trial in China. Minority ethnic and religious groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians are also reportedly systemically repressed.

These double standards are even more evident when the US Congress graduated China from the scope of the Jackson-Vanik Act without passing any additional resolution. Russia, on the other hand, will still be subjected to annual waivers until the Russia PNTR bill is passed. Moreover, the tabling of Russia PNTR bill is itself conditioned on passing a second piece of legislation on Russia's human rights and rule of law conditions, namely the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act.

While China may trump Russia in terms of economic benefits for the US economy and the US job market, still the inaction of congressmen in Washington will have serious consequences for US corporations looking to the new Russian market under WTO rules. The Petersen Institute for International Economics has estimated [PDF] that US exports to Russia could more than double within five years, from $11 billion in 2011 to over $22 billion. At a time when the US economy needs every boost, opening the doors to Russia, as with China over a decade ago, will be a boon for capitalists and greens alike.

No amount of human rights rhetoric will likely stop America from deeper integration with China, but Russia's trade status remains politically sensitive. One could even say that it is already unthinkable, nowadays, to impose sanctions of any stripe against China. As Washington keeps itself immersed in a debate on the tension between permanent trade relations on one hand and human rights on the other, it will likely keep plodding along with China so long as the country can keep to its growth numbers. Consequently, double standards are increasingly evident with respect to Russia, and it remains to be seen if any congressional calculus could be made in favor of Russia between now and the upcoming US elections in November.

Kambiz Behi is a consultant in foreign affairs at EnterInvest in Minsk, Russia. He holds a Ph.D in Social Anthropology and Masters in Regional Studies from Harvard University, and a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Edsel Tupaz is owner of Tupaz and Associates and a professor of international and comparative law, based in Manila, Philippines. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Ateneo Law School.

Suggested citation: Kambiz Behi and Edsel Tupaz America's Double Standard Towards Russia, JURIST - Sidebar, Sept. 11, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2010/09/behi-tupaz-russia-pntr.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Jordan Barry, an associate editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

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