This agreement does two things: it disciplines the use of subsidies, and it regulates the actions countries can take to counter the effects of subsidies. It says a country can use the WTO’s dispute settlement procedure to seek the withdrawal of the subsidy or the removal of its adverse effects. Or the country can launch its own investigation and ultimately charge extra duty (known as “countervailing duty”) on subsidized imports that are found to be hurting domestic producers.
The agreement contains a definition of subsidy. It also introduces the concept of a “specific” subsidy — i.e. a subsidy available only to an enterprise, industry, group of enterprises, or group of industries in the country (or state, etc) that gives the subsidy. The disciplines set out in the agreement only apply to specific subsidies. They can be domestic or export subsidies.
The agreement defines two categories of subsidies: prohibited and actionable. It originally contained a third category: non-actionable subsidies. This category existed for five years, ending on 31 December 1999, and was not extended. The agreement applies to agricultural goods as well as industrial products, except when the subsidies are exempt under the Agriculture Agreement’s “peace clause”, due to expire at the end of 2003.
Prohibited subsidies: subsidies that require recipients to meet certain export targets, or to use domestic goods instead of imported goods. They are prohibited because they are specifically designed to distort international trade, and are therefore likely to hurt other countries’ trade. They can be challenged in the WTO dispute settlement procedure where they are handled under an accelerated timetable. If the dispute settlement procedure confirms that the subsidy is prohibited, it must be withdrawn immediately. Otherwise, the complaining country can take counter measures. If domestic producers are hurt by imports of subsidized products, countervailing duty can be imposed.
Actionable subsidies: in this category the complaining country has to show that the subsidy has an adverse effect on its interests. Otherwise the subsidy is permitted. The agreement defines three types of damage they can cause. One country’s subsidies can hurt a domestic industry in an importing country. They can hurt rival exporters from another country when the two compete in third markets. And domestic subsidies in one country can hurt exporters trying to compete in the subsidizing country’s domestic market. If the Dispute Settlement Body rules that the subsidy does have an adverse effect, the subsidy must be withdrawn or its adverse effect must be removed. Again, if domestic producers are hurt by imports of subsidized products, countervailing duty can be imposed.
Some of the disciplines are similar to those of the Anti-Dumping Agreement. Countervailing duty (the parallel of anti-dumping duty) can only be charged after the importing country has conducted a detailed investigation similar to that required for anti-dumping action. There are detailed rules for deciding whether a product is being subsidized (not always an easy calculation), criteria for determining whether imports of subsidized products are hurting (“causing injury to”) domestic industry, procedures for initiating and conducting investigations, and rules on the implementation and duration (normally five years) of countervailing measures. The subsidized exporter can also agree to raise its export prices as an alternative to its exports being charged countervailing duty.
Subsidies may play an important role in developing countries and in the transformation of centrally-planned economies to market economies. Least-developed countries and developing countries with less than $1,000 per capita GNP are exempted from disciplines on prohibited export subsidies. Other developing countries are given until 2003 to get rid of their export subsidies. Least-developed countries must eliminate import-substitution subsidies (i.e. subsidies designed to help domestic production and avoid importing) by 2003 — for other developing countries the deadline was 2000. Developing countries also receive preferential treatment if their exports are subject to countervailing duty investigations. For transition economies, prohibited subsidies had to be phased out by 2002.