究竟世貿可以當什麼角色呢？處理國與國之間的貿易紛爭是世貿的核心工作之一，但不是全部。中美之間的爭議主要與科技產品相關。這由世貿的 (TRIPS) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights 委員會處理。
當一個成員政府認為另一成員政府違反WTO協議時，它可以向申訴成員必須提交一份“磋商請求”。 其他成員只要認為與自己有關，可以加入磋商。自1995年以來， WTO接收了500多起爭端，頒布了350多項裁決。
世貿機制基於明確定義和時間表。 紛爭首先由專家組作出裁決，再經世貿大會批准（或拒絕）， 不服者可上訴。但世貿希望在過程中可以庭外和解解決。其罰則不能高於受損害程度，其條款必須可行及顧及敗訴一方的接受程度。其目的是讓敗訴一方重回正軋。
世貿在舊的General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade（GATT）之時，規定是很鬆散的，敗訴方可以利用否決權和無限期拖延，但在1994年的烏拉圭協議後，它修補了漏洞（註1）。
當世貿收到請求（REQUEST FOR CONSULTATIONS）時，頭60天為調解期，之後45天為設立專家委員會期，再之後的6個月專家委員會需要向有關各方作報告，再之後的3周委員會要向世貿提交報告。世貿的處理紛爭機制有2個月硏究報告，若無上訴，這程序約為時一年。若敗訴一方進行上訴，它大約有90天時間，處理紛爭機制有1個月作覆核。就算上訴失敗，有關方面還要協調一個合理的期限，讓敗訴方改正。
中國在2012年9月投訴美國，「美國 - 對來自中國的某些產品實施反補貼和反傾銷措施」的DS449案，其專家報告在2014年3月（1年半）傳閱，上訴報告在2014年7月傳閱，美國敗訴。中國在2015年2月同意美國需要一年的期限更正，在2015年7月，中美告知世貿他們同意在8月完成。
On 21 August 2015, China and the United States informed the DSB of Agreed Procedures under Articles 21 and 22 of the DSU.
通常，敗訴一方要給勝訴方降低關稅作補償。如果在裁決20天後敗訴方還是不理會，起訴方可以要求爭端解決機構報復（「中止其權利或其他義務」）。 這只是暫時的，意在鼓勵對方遵守。 世貿也可以要求成員國將其產品的進口關稅提高到商定限額以上，以致敗訴國因太貴而無法進口必需品。 爭端解決機構必須在“合理時間段”到期後的30天內授權，除非請求達成共識（註3）。
Principles: equitable, fast, effective, mutually acceptable
Disputes in the WTO are essentially about broken promises. WTO members have agreed that if they believe fellow-members are violating trade rules, they will use the multilateral system of settling disputes instead of taking action unilaterally. That means abiding by the agreed procedures, and respecting judgements.
A dispute arises when one country adopts a trade policy measure or takes some action that one or more fellow-WTO members considers to be breaking the WTO agreements, or to be a failure to live up to obligations. A third group of countries can declare that they have an interest in the case and enjoy some rights.
A procedure for settling disputes existed under the old GATT, but it had no fixed timetables, rulings were easier to block, and many cases dragged on for a long time inconclusively. The Uruguay Round agreement introduced a more structured process with more clearly defined stages in the procedure. It introduced greater discipline for the length of time a case should take to be settled, with flexible deadlines set in various stages of the procedure. The agreement emphasizes that prompt settlement is essential if the WTO is to function effectively. It sets out in considerable detail the procedures and the timetable to be followed in resolving disputes. If a case runs its full course to a first ruling, it should not normally take more than about one year — 15 months if the case is appealed. The agreed time limits are flexible, and if the case is considered urgent (e.g. if perishable goods are involved), it is accelerated as much as possible.
The Uruguay Round agreement also made it impossible for the country losing a case to block the adoption of the ruling. Under the previous GATT procedure, rulings could only be adopted by consensus, meaning that a single objection could block the ruling. Now, rulings are automatically adopted unless there is a consensus to reject a ruling — any country wanting to block a ruling has to persuade all other WTO members (including its adversary in the case) to share its view.
Although much of the procedure does resemble a court or tribunal, the preferred solution is for the countries concerned to discuss their problems and settle the dispute by themselves. The first stage is therefore consultations between the governments concerned, and even when the case has progressed to other stages, consultation and mediation are still always possible.
How long to settle a dispute?
These approximate periods for each stage of a dispute settlement procedure are target figures — the agreement is flexible. In addition, the countries can settle their dispute themselves at any stage. Totals are also approximate.
Consultations, mediation, etc
Panel set up and panellists appointed
Final panel report to parties
Final panel report to WTO members
Dispute Settlement Body adopts report (if no appeal)
Total = 1 year
Dispute Settlement Body adopts appeals report
Total = 1y 3m
Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect … . Well, not exactly. But the sentiments apply. If a country has done something wrong, it should swiftly correct its fault. And if it continues to break an agreement, it should offer compensation or face a suitable response that has some bite — although this is not actually a punishment: it’s a “remedy”, the ultimate goal being for the country to comply with the ruling.
The priority is for the losing “defendant” to bring its policy into line with the ruling or recommendations, and it is given time to do this. The dispute settlement agreement stresses that “prompt compliance with recommendations or rulings of the DSB [Dispute Settlement Body] is essential in order to ensure effective resolution of disputes to the benefit of all Members”.
If the country that is the target of the complaint loses, it must follow the recommendations of the panel report or the appeals report. It must state its intention to do so at a Dispute Settlement Body meeting held within 30 days of the report’s adoption. If complying with the recommendation immediately proves impractical, the member will be given a “reasonable period of time” to do so. If it fails to act within this period, it has to enter into negotiations with the complaining country (or countries) in order to determine mutually-acceptable compensation — for instance, tariff reductions in areas of particular interest to the complaining side.
If after 20 days, no satisfactory compensation is agreed, the complaining side may ask the Dispute Settlement Body for permission to retaliate (to “suspend concessions or other obligations”). This is intended to be temporary, to encourage the other country to comply. It could for example take the form of blocking imports by raising import duties on products from the other country above agreed limits to levels so high that the imports are too expensive to sell — within certain limits. The Dispute Settlement Body must authorize this within 30 days after the “reasonable period of time” expires unless there is a consensus against the request.
In principle, the retaliation should be in the same sector as the dispute. If this is not practical or if it would not be effective, it can be in a different sector of the same agreement. In turn, if this is not effective or practicable and if the circumstances are serious enough, the action can be taken under another agreement. The objective is to minimize the chances of actions spilling over into unrelated sectors while at the same time allowing the actions to be effective.
In any case, the Dispute Settlement Body monitors how adopted rulings are implemented. Any outstanding case remains on its agenda until the issue is resolved.