[from the Center for China and Globalization]
The global economy is being rocked by war, sanctions and spiraling commodity prices—not to mention the ongoing strain of the pandemic, geopolitical tensions and climate change. These compounding risks present a serious challenge to the system of open trade that the World Trade Organization was designed to uphold. But it also offers a chance for the beleaguered organization, which is holding its first ministerial conference since 2017, to prove its continuing relevance.
The WTO has traditionally focused on combating protectionism—measures designed to insulate producers from international competition. Now, though, the biggest threats to free trade come from policies meant to safeguard national security and protect citizens from risks, such as those related to health, the environment or digital spaces.
Former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has called this growing use of export controls, cybersecurity laws, investment blacklists, reshoring incentives and the like “precautionism.” It’s been on the rise since the start of the pandemic, when many countries moved to restrict exports of medical supplies and other essentials. COVID-19 has also raised concerns about the vulnerability of supply chains, particularly those dependent on geopolitical rivals.
The world’s two biggest trading nations, the United States and China, have both engaged in precautionism. The U.S. is actively pursuing a policy of “friend-shoring”—shifting trade flows from potentially hostile countries to friendlier ones. China’s “dual circulation” strategy aims in part to reduce dependence on foreign imports, especially technology, while its government has long imposed limits on data flows in and out of the country.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the momentum toward friend-shoring has grown. Meanwhile, food shortages and surging prices have triggered another round of precautionary measures: Since the war began, 63 countries have imposed a more than 100 export restrictions on fertilizer and foodstuffs.
While the impulse driving such policies is understandable, the trend could cause great harm if allowed to run unchecked. It will increase inflation and depress global growth, especially if it involves costly redeployment of supply chains away from efficient producers such as China. A recent WTO study estimated that decoupling the global economy into “Western” and “Eastern” blocs would wipe out nearly 5% in output, the equivalent of $4 trillion.
As a recent study by the International Monetary Fund points out, the way to make global value chains more resilient is to diversify, not dismantle them. Turning away from open trade will only make states more vulnerable to economic shocks such as war, disease or crop failures.
The WTO is an obvious vehicle to rally collective action on these issues. However, like other global institutions, it has been weakened by years of deadlock. At this week’s meeting, countries should start to build positive momentum with some small but symbolically significant breakthroughs to show the WTO can still mobilize joint action.
Given current threats to food security, at the very least members should agree not to restrict exports of foodstuffs purchased for the World Food Programme. A step further would be a joint statement calling on members to keep trade in food and agricultural products open and avoid imposing unjustified export restrictions. There should also be closer coordination to smooth supply chains and clogged logistics channels.
Another low-hanging fruit is finally securing a waiver covering intellectual property rights for COVID-19-related products. This proposal has languished for over 18 months but has now been redrafted to address concerns from the U.S. and European Union. Signing it would go some way to expanding global access to vaccines, which are still sorely needed in many parts of the world.
Beyond this week, the WTO secretariat and members need to develop a work program to reform the organization. This should include developing a framework to ensure that if states do take precautionary measures, they do so in a transparent, rules-based manner that does not slide into more harmful forms of protectionism.
Reviving the WTO’s defunct dispute settlement mechanism is a clear priority. Twenty-five members have agreed to an interim arrangement that would function in a similar way. More members should join this agreement, ideally including the U.S., and start negotiating the full restoration of a binding mechanism. They should also set clear criteria for carveouts for legitimate precautionary measures related to national security, healthcare and environmental issues.
No one should expect big breakthroughs in Geneva. But practical agreements on immediate priorities such food security and vaccines would at least help to reassert the WTO’s relevance and show that the world’s trading partners are not simply going to give up on multilateralism. At this dangerous moment, even small victories are welcome.