China's ascent in global trade governance: From rule taker to rule shaker and, maybe rule maker?

Henry S. GAO, Singapore Management University


As China enters its tenth year of WTO Membership, has the dragon brought a ‘reign of fire’ to the multilateral trading system and rocked its institutional foundations? This paper will answer this question by reviewing China’s participation in two key activities of the WTO, i.e., trade negotiations and dispute settlement, as well as another important component of global trade governance: regional trade agreements (RTAs). I will argue that, overall, China has evolved from a passive ‘taker’ of the existing rules to a country that will ‘shake’ the rules for its own interests or even ‘make’ new rules. At the same time, the pace of China’s ascent has been uneven in different areas; the most aggressive strategy has been apparent in RTA negotiations, where China has been on a frantic shopping spree since its accession to the WTO. Similarly, while China was initially reluctant to use the multilateral dispute settlement system, it has become a major player since 2007. In terms of multilateral trade negotiations, China has been sending mixed signals: while it has made many submissions on negotiating issues in the Doha Round of WTO negotiations, China has so far successfully resisted calls from the US and EU for it to play a leading role in the long-stalled trade talks. After exploring the reasons for varying behavioral patterns in a range of areas, the chapter concludes by exploring China’s future role in the WTO, as well as the potential ramifications of China’s ascent in global trade governance.