China said on Thursday it will continue to support the “open and unbiased” World Trade Organization (WTO) in a statement that came on the heels of an announcement by President Donald Trump’s administration that the U.S. is not bound by the group’s rulings.
The world’s second largest economy is seeking to position itself as a defender of the international trade system in response to a rising tide of protectionist sentiment personified by the billionaire politician. Trump has repeatedly argued that Washington is better off pursuing country-by-country agreements rather than working within a global regime.
“China would like to work with all WTO members to ensure that the WTO can play an important role in global trade and to ensure that the WTO can play a constructive role in international cooperation,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters during a regularly scheduled press briefing. He added that maintaining and improving the “open and unbiased multilateral trade regime is conducive to improving world economic development.”
The statement came in response to a question about a letter sent from the United States Trade Representative to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday arguing that “Americans are not directly subject to WTO rulings.”
The text—entitled “The President’s 2017 Trade Policy Agenda”—also says Trump’s government “will aggressively defend American sovereignty over matters of trade policy.”
Since 1995, the WTO’s dispute settlement system has heard more than 500 cases centered on whether countries have broken agreed trading rules in areas including subsidies, customs and tariffs.
The WTO cannot punish countries that do not abide by rulings, but can authorize retaliatory measures. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. brought at least 16 trade complaints against China, arguing that Beijing’s policies on goods ranging from chicken to aluminium broke the organization’s rules.
China has also often voiced its own complaints to the group.
Trump has accused China of being a free-rider in the international system, saying its unfair trade policies have cost the U.S. tens of thousands of jobs and threatening to slap Beijing with massive tariffs of up to 45 percent.
In a White House meeting with U.S. manufacturing moguls last week, Trump pointed to the WTO as a major factor in the U.S. losing out to Beijing, saying that “70,000 factories closed since China joined.”
As Trump has sought to distance the U.S. from the international trade system, China has moved to shore it up, hoping to preserve institutions that have been critical to the success of their export-driven economy. At a commerce ministry briefing Thursday, spokesman Sun Jiwen reaffirmed China’s support for the international trade system in response to a question about the WTO’s newly appointed director-general Roberto Azevedo.
“China will continue to contribute to multilateral trade systems and improvement of global governance,” said the spokesman, according to a transcript on the ministry’s website.