National security seems to be the protean norm du jour in international economic law these days. On 23 March 2018, the United States’ Trump Administration imposed a 25% tariff against around US$60 billion of imports from China, 15 days after the United States imposed tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum (25% on steel imports, and 10% on aluminum imports) from around the world. US President Trump accused China of “economic aggression”, and is leaving the door open for negotiations with all States to force them to take measures to eliminate the United States’ “$800 billion trade deficit with the world”. Chinese President (for life) Xi Jinping’s administration subsequently announced preliminary retaliatory tariffs against over $3 Billion in American products such as apples, steel, and pork, even as US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stated that the tariff wars are part of the United States’ negotiation strategy with China. (Both sides are reported to be quietly negotiating, even amid the climate of mutually announced tariffs. China has started making concessions, such as relaxing its foreign investment rules and expanding imports of US semiconductors.) Even as World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Roberto Azevedo cautioned against the impact of such a trade war on the global economy, the WTO did not deny that under GATT Article XXI(b)(iii) (Security Exceptions), the United States could take “any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests…taken in time of war or other emergency in international relations.” President Trump’s two presidential proclamations declaring tariffs against aluminum imports and steel imports heavily refer to the impairment of the United States’ national security interests as the basis for imposing tariffs. The United States provisionally exempted NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico from the steel and aluminum tariffs, using the bludgeoning effect of threatened tariffs in the pending NAFTA renegotiations. Last weekend, South Korea acceded to the United States’ demands to revise their KORUS Free Trade Agreement, which US President Trump is now tying to the outcome of its forthcoming summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Trade is now more deliberately leveraged as a national security issue.
Significantly, no State in the international community seriously challenges that the security exception in GATT Article XXI is a self-judged matter that takes a governmental measure out of the ambit of WTO law. (Qatar’s pending complaint against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the World Trade Organization – previously featured here – seeks review of any Member’s assertion of national security under GATT Article XXI, but it appears other Members such as the United States have taken the opposing view that “national security issues are political and not appropriate for the WTO dispute system.”) Even the European Union, which threatened tariffs against the United States if it was not exempted from the US tariffs on steel and aluminum (it eventually got the exemption for all EU Members), did not challenge the factual basis behind the United States’ use of the national security justification in its presidential proclamations on tariffs against steel and aluminum imports. The United States had invoked, as its factual basis for invoking national security, the supposed “weakening of (its) internal economy, leaving the United States almost totally reliant on foreign producers…that is essential for key military and commercial systems”. Considering that President Trump had just boasted about the tremendous strength and independence of the United States economy at the World Economic Forum in January 2018, it was baffling that the United States made this seeming volte face to invoke GATT Article XXI. The Trump administration has also invoked the President’s self-judged discretion to decide when national security is impaired in the case of foreign investment into the United States, most recently to block Singaporean company Broadcom’s US$117 billion takeover of Qualcomm, thereby increasing the number of blocked proposed acquisitions of United States businesses (by countries such as Germany, China, and Singapore) on national security grounds.
And yet, it is not only the United States that has resorted to national security reasons in the past year for retaliatory trade measures, investment restrictions, and other international economic measures. The European Commission anchors its new proposal to tax digital business activities; the forthcoming implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (ensuring data privacy and protection rules applicable to all companies processing data of EU nationals, whether located in the EU or elsewhere); as well as the recently opened investigation of the massive data leak from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, ultimately on the Commission’s many concerns about EU Members’ regional, national, and economic security. China has set up its own national security review of foreign investments into China, mirrored by Australia’s recently strengthened national security review of foreign investments (China-sourced or otherwise) into critical infrastructure. India and Sri Lanka have also raised national security concerns over China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program. Nigeria demurred from joining the recently-launched 44-member African Continental Free Trade Area, citing economic and security implications of the agreement.
Such muscular and frequent assertions of ‘national security’ as justifications for international economic measures does bring to the forefront the timeless debate on whether international courts and tribunals can review a State’s assertion of ‘national security’. In this post, I maintain my key argument in 2012 that modern international law still does not subscribe to the classical view of ‘national security’ as a Schmittian exception – e.g. one that takes a measure justified by national security outside of the purview of any law – but instead continues to regulate the safety-valve functions of national security or national emergency clauses as exceptions, to the point that the mere assertion of national security cannot completely take out an economic measure from the purview of international economic regulations either. Whether a State invokes ‘national security’ to impose or threaten measures for bargaining leverage in negotiations or to force reductions of trade deficits; or to impose new economic regulations, review, or restrictions against foreign businesses – the current framework of international law and international economic law has at least developed to the point that there will be some review of a State’s asserted national security justification, even if it is only for international tribunals to preliminarily decide whether they have jurisdiction over the disputes before them. I refer to dispute settlement under the WTO, foreign investment arbitral tribunals, international investment court proposals such as China’s investment court for OBOR projects and the EU’s multilateral investment court, as well as traditional court adjudication under the International Court of Justice.
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