Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 29, 2008

28/11/2008 1:00:00 AM


Trading nations around the world are saying the right things about preventing a surge of protectionism that would choke Pakistani investors monitor the index at Karachi Stock Exchangeglobal trade when it needs to be boosted to help pull economies out of their slump. But amid fears of a deepening recession stretching beyond 2009, will governments act in conformity with their promises?

Leaders of the 21 economies in APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, hit the right notes when they issued a statement during their summit in Lima, Peru, last weekend. To counter calls to shield countries and industries from competition by restricting imports, the APEC leaders, who oversee half the world’s economic activity, said that in the next 12 months they would not raise new barriers to investment or to trade in goods and services, impose new export restrictions, or implement measures inconsistent with the World Trade Organisation, including those that stimulate exports.

This was an endorsement of the free trade section of a declaration issued by the summit of the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies in Washington on November 15. The G20 accounts for about 90 per cent of global economic activity and 80 per cent of trade. Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and the US are members of both APEC and the G20. So the combined words of leaders of these two groups should carry weight.

Yet two days after Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, put his name to the G20 declaration, his Deputy Finance Minister, Dmitry Pankin, announced that Moscow would raise tariffs on imported cars to protect Russian producers.

Russia has also announced a general review of trade agreements that may lead to a further increase in import duties and a cut in quotas for allowable imports. Russia says these measures were planned in advance of the G20 meeting. ”No one said that anyone should scrap existing barriers or go back on existing decisions,” Mr Pankin explained.

China, which is anxious to help exporters hit by falling demand in the US and Europe, took a somewhat different tack. Three days before the G20 summit it raised export tax rebates paid on more than 3700 types of goods almost 28 per cent of the total sold overseas. Yet China has a huge trade surplus and has been criticised by economists who argue that the export sector receives too much favorable treatment from the government, which should instead stimulate domestic demand.

So far there has been no reneging on APEC and G20 free trade pledges. But these are early days. It will take resolute national leadership and continuing international consultation to resist protectionism as economic woes get worse and cries for help by affected industries become louder.

Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a free-trade think-tank in Brussels, is concerned that the APEC and G20 pledges still leave scope for countries to impose anti-dumping duties on imports deemed to be below the cost of production, and to provide emergency state aid to politically sensitive industries. Indeed, he says that such measures are supplanting permanent import tariffs as the main method of protectionism and were not covered by either the APEC or G20 statements.

Still, APEC went somewhat further than the G20 in supporting an early resumption of WTO negotiations to liberalise international trade. These negotiations collapsed last July after seven years because of disagreements between the US and India, backed by China, over the extent to which agriculture in developing countries should be shielded from foreign competition.

China’s President Hu Jintao said in Lima that Beijing believed reviving the WTO talks and bringing them to a successful conclusion should be a top priority. APEC leaders directed their trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month to try to advance the WTO negotiations. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said a successful outcome would be a ”huge shot in the arm for the global economy” and to confidence.

If the world trade deal stalls again, there is another option for Pacific Rim nations. They could forge a trans-Pacific free trade agreement. The Bush Administration in the US, Australia and Peru announced recently that they would join Brunei, China, New Zealand and Singapore in talks to try to build the core of a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific. The first round of negotiations will be held in March in Singapore.

However, the Obama factor is looming over all these issues. Barack Obama, the US President-elect who takes office in January, outlined a potentially protectionist agenda during the election campaign. He said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and a pending bilateral deal with South Korea, rebalance economic ties with China to reduce the huge US trade deficit, challenge unfair trade in the WTO and elsewhere, and discourage US companies from outsourcing work to countries such as India and the Philippines.

If Obama, backed by a Democratic majority in Congress, takes up these cudgels, the prospects of success in both the WTO and trans-Pacific trade liberalisation negotiations will recede while the likelihood of a slide into wider tit-for-tat protectionism will increase.

The International Chamber of Commerce pointed out recently that parallels are being drawn between the financial and economic crisis of today and the Great Depression of the 1930s. ”Almost 80 years ago, many nations reacted to the Great Depression by raising border tariffs and ended up making matters worse for themselves included. Beggar-my-neighbour protectionism ended up beggaring everyone. That is one of the most unambiguous lessons of the 1930s,” the chamber said.

Obama and the leaders of other major economies and trading nations should bear this in mind as they consider policies for 2009 and beyond.

The writer, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore.



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