March 2018
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India braces for Donald Trump's reciprocal tax, may fight it in WTO
India is gearing up for a tough fight following America’s repeated threat of imposing a “reciprocal tax” on countries with which it has a trade deficit. “We will oppose such a move on the basis of the principles involved,” a senior Commerce Department official told Business Standard. The issue could possibly be taken up at the World Trade Organization’s disputes settlement body as well, experts said.

On Friday, US President Donald Trump signed two proclamations that levied a 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium imported from all countries except Canada, Mexico and Australia. While the exact details of the new order are not known, the contentious tariffs will come into effect in 15 days. While the US focused on China for the larger part of Trump’s first year in office, India has been a target in the recent past. Trump voiced his disappointment against “unfair” treatment of American exports to the country even as India enjoys free access to the US market. “We’re going to be doing a reciprocal tax programme at some point, if China is going to charge us 25 per cent or if India is going to charge us 75 per cent. If they are at 50, or they are at 75 or they are at 25, we are going to be at the same number,” Trump said on Friday.

“Reciprocal tax” is a new concept in the global trade rules. “The US President may not have a clear idea about how reciprocity works at the WTO. Each country has some flexibility to change its customs duty as long as it does not break its larger commitments under the fixed bound rates,” Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for WTO Studies, said.

Under the norms of the WTO, which oversees global trade law for its 164 member nations, the bound tariff rate is the customs duty rate committed by a country to all other members under the most favoured nation principle, which prohibits discrimination in tariffs. Pointing out that it is not known as of now whether the US move is within the bound rate, Das clarified that India has never raised its tariffs beyond the fixed bound rates, which are arrived at after lengthy trade negotiations and vary for every nation.

India’s decision to raise import duties as announced in the last Budget was within the rates, according to Das. When a country raises a tariff to a higher level, those adversely affected can seek remedy through the dispute settlement body (DSB) of the WTO.

“The US has single-handedly and consistently blocked the appointment of judges to the seven-member DSB. Currently, three members have retired and a fourth is set to retire soon,” senior trade expert and Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Biswajit Dhar said. India had repeatedly raised this issue during the last ministerial conference of the WTO at Buenos Aires in Argentina, with Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu urging swift action to resolve the impasse. “This is part of a larger plan to destabilise the WTO structure and force India and other nations to come into a bilateral agreement with the United States,” Dhar added.

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