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In what could be termed as an ‘economic war’ between two global giants, Visa Inc (NYSE:V), MasterCard Inc. (NYSE:MA) and American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) were among the US companies to get support from World Trade Organization judges that China unfairly restrains foreign payment processors.

WTO judges agreed with US, concerning China’s distinction between foreign and domestic companies, by imposing unfair requirements on the former. However, they rejected that Shanghai-based UnionPay Data Co, monopolizes the domestic- currency payment-card transactions. WTO judges found four different requirements/WTO-rules which were not met by China. The case was filed by the U.S., complaining that China denies foreign companies to issue their own bank cards, denominated in its currency, and also to build networks to support such cards. US claims that China did not keep its promise made while joining WTO in 2001, to open up its credit- and debit-card markets to foreign processing companies by the end of 2006.

Both parties had a mixed reaction over the judgment. According to Chinese commerce ministry website, “China has reservations about some parts of the ruling.”

“We are hopeful that this ruling will pave the way for international payment companies to participate in the domestic payments marketplace in China,” said Will Valentine, a spokesman for San Francisco-based Visa, the world’s biggest bank-card network. “In the meantime, our existing business in China is healthy.”

What could have forced the U.S. to knock at WTO’s door could have been the forecast from MasterCard, the No. 2 network, in September 2010 that, China will overtake the U.S. as the largest market for credit cards by 2020, with about 900 million cards in circulation

According to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter based in Carpinteria, California, UnionPay surpassed American Express as the world’s third-biggest payments network in 2010, by processing $2.36 trillion in credit- and debit-card purchases last year, a 46 percent increase from 2011. For the same period, Visa handled purchases totaling $5.38 trillion, a 12 percent gain, while MasterCard transactions increased about 15 percent to $2.43 trillion.

Visa, AmEx and MasterCard gained in New York trading sessions yesterday, after the Friday announcement that they had agreed with card- issuing banks to pay $6.6 billion in settling a U.S. antitrust lawsuit brought by merchants.

Tim Reif, general counsel at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, called the ruling a “decisive victory” that may produce 6,000 new jobs.