By Nicola Bullard
When the philosopher Kierkegaard wrote “if you marry, you will regret it and if you fail to marry, you will regret it” he may well have been describing the West’s attitude to China. While the US has for many years been trapped in its own schizophrenia of containment or engagement, Europe now seems to be suffering from the same malaise.
Less than one month after the EU’s “mice-catching” deal with China (don’t worry about the details, it does the job) European trade commissioner Pascal Lamy told the Transatlantic Business Council that he wanted an “early start” to the next round of WTO negotiations because “a round with China in is going to be much more difficult that a round without China in.”
So why is the trade commissioner – last seen celebrating a deal that will almost certainly clinch China’s early entry to the WTO — now hurrying to get on with business before China joins? There are several explanations. The most likely is that Mr Lamy knows China is a tough negotiator, and he wants to make sure that the agenda for the much- desired new trade round is agreed and moving before China joins. At the same time, he is using the spectre of China to force others, especially the US, to agree on an agenda before China can put a spoke in the wheel.
The trade commissioner may also be taking a longer view and is nervous that other developing countries, especially the outspoken “like minded group” which includes India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Dominican Republic and Uganda, will take courage from China’s presence in the WTO. Even though they stand to lose a great deal with China’s entry (much more, for example, than the US) the political strategy of using China as the ice-breaker to crack the EU-US frontline may open up new negotiating spaces which could benefit everyone. That is, a revived Third World team, with China in the line- up, could start winning a few more matches.
In the same speech to the Transatlantic Business Council Mr Lamy confided that “the unsung part of the deals we have done with China is the extent of EU-US co-operation to avoid Chinese divide and rule tactics.” He went on to warn that the challenge ahead is to “[ensure] that China implements its commitments in full.” But almost in the next breath Mr Lamy described the post-Seattle situation at the WTO as a “confidence building phase” which is “notably important for developing countries. We have to regain their confidence.” It’s clear that Mr Lamy thinks some countries have a little too much confidence and need to be kept in check by EU-US “co-operation”.
Whether China is even remotely interested in assuming a leadership role in the WTO remains to be seen. China does not have an expansionist tradition, and there is no indication that it would chose to take on US hegemony (if, indeed, China’s trade negotiators believe in such things) through the WTO.
Labour linkages will deepen divisions but not solve the problem
But China is not yet the biggest spanner in the WTO works. Most commentators agree that the breakdown of the WTO talks in Seattle and the present stalemate in Geneva are due largely to disagreements between the US and Europe. Their recent joint “Statement on a New Round” (31 May) is just three short paragraphs: a precise measure of how little agreement there is across the Atlantic these days.
One point, though, on which there is unity is that “the WTO agenda should include the social issues of labour and environment, not as a matter of protectionism but as a matter of social justice and sustainability.”
Linking trade to labour and environmental standards is strongly opposed by many Third World countries, who see it as thinly veiled protectionism and beyond the mandate of the WTO. The EU-US insistence on keeping it on the agenda is guaranteed to deepen these divisions. In fact, so obvious is this conclusion that one wonders if it is a deliberate strategy by the EU and US to turn up the heat in the WTO, or is it simply a sop to the trade unions and environmentalists who support Al Gore but lost the China trade vote?
It is also obvious that once China joins the WTO the “linkages” debate will take on almost hysterical proportions. Although China’s Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNRT) was comprehensively endorsed by the US Congress, the human rights groups, the trade unions and the anti- China reactionaries will not sit down. Every glitch in the US economy, any hint of American job losses or dumped Chinese goods, reports of workers’ rights violations or mass unemployment in China, or even signs of recalcitrance (let alone downright assertiveness) on the part of China, will unleash a new wave of China bashing.
And this will be the case so long as these groups continue to set their sights on the wrong target.
It is not China that is the main threat to workers, the environment and American jobs, but the economic system itself, of which the WTO is a central pillar. The inescapable logic of the WTO-enforced trade liberalisation regime is that workers are pitted against each other in an increasingly competitive and unstable global economy. Adding labour standards to a system which is already biased and unfair and where the rules are set by the few for the many, will not solve the problems but simply paper-over them. Even worse, extending the mandate to labour and environmental issues would lend legitimacy and even more power to an institution whose very existence should be under examination.
Once China joins the WTO there will undoubtedly be an upsurge of concern about Chinese workers’ rights (which is unlikely to extend to all workers because, one assumes, it’s better to be exploited by capitalists than by communists). But the WTO cannot solve the problem because it is part of the problem.
We must be concerned about workers, wherever they are. But the best way to materially, rather than rhetorically, improve conditions for all workers is by challenging the institutions (such as the WTO and the IMF) and the ideologies (such as free trade and financial liberalisation) which by provide the rationale for putting the rights of the market above the rights of people.

*Nicola Bullard is the deputy director of Focus on the Global South, a policy research programme associated with Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute.