China uses Spider-Man motto to slam US over trade at tense WTO meeting

  • International frustration over America's protectionist stance boiled over during a closed-door review of U.S. trade policy at the World Trade Organization, according to an official in Geneva.
  • Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen cited Spider-Man's famous philosophy: "With great power comes great responsibility." Then he took the U.S. to task.
  • The WTO is designed to be a forum for countries to air their grievances, and reviews of members' trade policies can often become heated. Still, the tone of the two-day meeting this week was unusually sharp.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the plenary session at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the plenary session at the G20 Summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

The United States and China may have called a truce on tariffs, but tensions remained high during a diplomatic meeting in Switzerland this week.

International frustration over America's protectionist stance boiled over during a closed-door review of U.S. trade policy at the World Trade Organization, according to an official in Geneva. India called America unpopular. Japan made reference to Old Glory, urging the U.S. never to take down "the flag of the free." And China invoked the spirit of legendary comic book creator Stan Lee to scold the U.S.

Ambassador Zhang Xiangchen said Spider-Man is his favorite of Lee's creations and cited the superhero's famous philosophy: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Then he took the United States to task.

"It is unfortunate that we are seeing now, especially during the last year, a different America with severe mismatched power and responsibility," Zhang said.

The WTO is designed to be a forum for countries to air their grievances, and reviews of members' trade policies can often become heated. Still, the tone of the two-day meeting this week was unusually sharp.

Countries took issue with a host of American actions, according to the Geneva official. Tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum topped the agenda, especially since they were ostensibly imposed to safeguard national security. But members also complained about the rising U.S. deficit, international provisions in the new tax law and the expanded use of national security reviews to impose duties.

"A top dog should act like a top dog," Zhang said. "It cannot only see a narrow spectrum of its own self-interest, and it certainly should not do whatever it wishes at the sacrifice of others."

U.S. Ambassador Dennis Shea vigorously defended the administration and cast blame back on China. He accused Beijing of forcing American companies to give up critical technologies — and, if that didn't work, stealing the intellectual property instead.

"China apparently believes its power comes with little or no responsibility," he told the WTO. "This is a conversation that we will pick up in the near future."

The U.S. has put new tariffs on Chinese imports on hold as it conducts trade talks with Beijing. The deadline for a deal is March 1, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that he is working to schedule a face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart in January. Currently, the U.S. has imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, though President Donald Trump has threatened to tax the rest of imports from the country if they can't strike a deal.

Additionally, the U.S. has called for changes to the WTO's structure and process for resolving disputes. Trump has even threatened to leave the international organization without major reforms.

"Our long record of leadership at the WTO makes us cleared-eyed about the challenges ahead," Shea told the group. "In our assessment, members are in the early stages of grappling with our collective failure to confront problems that have been growing for years. The United States will be at the forefront of these efforts."