One thing that economists often argue for is free trade. It promotes competition, allows greater choice and generates efficiency gains through specialisation to name a few of the advantages. Barriers to trade have gradually been brought down across the global economy, but some do still exist.
Although free trade does have many advantages, there are also arguments for barriers to trade, especially for developing or emerging economies. In some cases, barriers to trade can help a country to develop a particular industry or offer protection to a new sector from the giants of the world. In the case of China, it had a quota system in place since 2009 to restrict exports of ‘rare earth materials’, such as Tungsten and Molybdenum. Many of the hi-tech products that China specialises in require these rare minerals during production and, as the dominant producer of these minerals, Beijing had imposed restrictions on exporting them in an attempt to develop these industries.
However, other countries had raised concerns about the quota system being used, suggesting that by restricting exports of rare earth minerals, China was driving up their price. It was also suggested that the restrictions benefited domestic producers, at the expense of foreign competitors, given that domestic producers were able to access the raw materials at cheaper prices.
A complaint was made to the World Trade Organization in March 2014 by the USA, supported by the EU, Canada and Japan. Following an investigation by a WTO panel, the panel found that China had failed to show sufficiently that the quotas were justified. After an appeal by China, the panel’s findings were upheld in August by the WTO.
In response to the failure of its appeal, China has just announced that it is removing the quotas on exports of rare earth materials. However, this is unlikely to be the end of the story, as other policies may well be imposed, including a resources tax; and an export licence is still required. The following articles consider this battle.
China axes rare earth export quotas Financial Times, Lucy Hornby (5/1/15)
China scraps quotas on rare earths after WTO complaint BBC News (5/1/15)
China ends rare-earth minerals export quotas Wall Street Journal, Chuin-Wei Yap (5/1/15)
China scraps rare earth export controls after losing WTO appeal Bloomberg (6/1/15)
China abolishes rare earth export quotas: state media Reuters (4/1/15)
- What are the benefits of free trade?
- Why do some countries choose to impose protectionist measures and what type of measures can be put in place?
- Using a diagram, explain the impact that export quotas would have on Chinese firms using these rare minerals and also on foreign firms.
- Why have other countries argued that export quotas push up prices of these minerals?
- What other policies might China put in place in order to protect its industries?
Trade is generally argued to be good for economic growth, as it allows countries to specialise in those goods in which they have a comparative advantage and thus produce and consume more of all goods in total. However, trade inevitably leads to winners and losers, especially as countries impose tariffs on imports in order to protect domestic industries. This has been the case in the banana industry.
Banana growers in the former European colonies have long been protected by EU tariffs, helping to prevent competition from their Latin American banana growers. But, now things could be about to change. In December 2009, most of the nations concerned reached an agreement in Geneva for tariffs imposed by the EU to be gradually reduced.
The European Union had imposed no duty on bananas from their former colonies, but had imposed tariffs on banana imports from other countries. This meant that those countries now benefiting from zero import duty could sell their bananas for a much lower price, therefore restricting the other nations (who did have to pay an import duty) from competing effectively.
With the World Trade Organisation in attendance, an agreement was signed that puts an end to this trade dispute dating back over 2 decades. The Director General of the WTO, Pascal Lamy said:
‘This is a truly historic moment … After so many twists and turns, these complicated and politically contentious disputes can finally be put to bed. It has taken so long that quite a few people who worked on the cases, both in the Secretariat and in member governments have retired long ago.’
This trade war has been ongoing for many years and this agreement represents a big step in the right direction. With a fairer playing field in this banana market, countries in Latin America will now be much more able to compete with other nations. As economists argue that trade is good, a reduction in protectionist measures should be seen as a good thing and will benefit the countries concerned. The following articles consider this trade resolution.
Banana war ends after 20 years BBC News (8/11/12)
WTO: Historic signing ends 20 years of EU-Latin American banana disputes 4-Traders, WTO (8/11/12)
EU, Latin America nations mark end of ‘banana war’ Fox News (8/11/12)
Banana war ends after 20 years The Telegraph (9/11/12)
Infamous banana dispute ends Sky News (9/11/12)
- What is comparative advantage and how does it lead to gains from trade?
- How does a tariff help protect a country’s domestic industry?
- Using a diagram, illustrate the effect of a tariff being imposed on banana imports from Latin America. Is there a cost to society of such a policy?
- Now, show what happens when this tariff is removed by the EU. Who benefits and who loses?
- What is the role of the World Trade Organisation?
- How does a tariff affect a country’s ability to compete with other nations?
International economists have long advocated the advantages of free trade. By boosting competition, increasing choice and market size, trade has long been seen as an engine of growth and efficiency.
For many years, tariffs and other restrictive trade practices have been removed on trade between both developed and developing countries and many rounds of negotiations have taken place, with mixed results.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) plays a key role in trade negotiations and has the main aim of liberalising trade. The organisation requires its members to operate according to a variety of rules, including the prohibition of quotas and the inability of countries to raise existing tariffs without negotiating with their trading partners.
If any country breaks a trade agreement, the WTO can impose sanctions. A current case that has been referred to the WTO for ‘consultation’ concerns Argentina. Argentina has imposed various import restrictions on trade, such as import licensing and a requirement for countries to balance its exports and imports.
A number of WTO members recently expressed their concerns about these restrictive trade practices. The EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht said:
Argentina’s import restrictions violate international trade rules and must be removed. These measures are causing very real damage to EU companies – hurting jobs and our economy as a whole. … Argentina’s trade policy has become rooted in unfair trade practices.
Argentina has said that it was expecting the move from the EU, but claims that its protectionist measures are there to support and re-industrialise the country. This case is unlikely to be resolved any time soon and while the ‘restrictive trade practices’ remain in place, EU companies trying to export to Argentina will find barriers, such as a requirement for all imports to receive pre-approval.
The effects of these restrictions have already been felt, with EU exports to Argentina down by 4% in April this year, compared with the same month last year. The following articles consider this issue.
EU takes Argentina trade fight to WTO France 24, (25/5/12)
EU files WTO suit over Argentina’s import restrictions Reuters, Sebastien Moffett and Tom Miles , (26/5/12)
EU escalates dispute with Argentina Financial Times, Peter Spiegel and Joshua Chaffin, (25/5/12)
EU refers Argentina’s import restrictions to the WTO BBC News (25/5/12)
EU steps up challenge to Argentina’s policies Wall Street Journal, Matthew Dalton (25/5/12)
- What are the rules governing the members of the WTO?
- What are the advantages of free trade?
- To what extent should emerging economies be allowed to impose protectionist measures to help support their economies?
- What action could the EU take in response to the ‘restrictive trade practices’ imposed by Argentina?
- What is import licensing?
- How will the import restrictions affect EU companies and the growth of the EU as a whole?
The two biggest world exporters have signed trade deals worth $15bn (£9bn). The Chinese Premier and German Chancellor were targeting an increase in bilateral trade to £178bn over the next five years. Premier Wen has also offered support to some of the European countries struggling with their debt. Despite this offer of support, there is something in it for the Chinese economy. China’s foreign exchange reserves are at a record high, but about 25% are invested in euro-denominated assets, hence China has a very strong interest in preventing the collapse of the euro. Furthermore, it is also interested in diversifying its export market to reduce its reliance on US markets. This is particularly important given the growth in protectionism in the US economy. Mr. Innes-ker said:
“China’s dependence and exposure to the US dollar creates issues for its own economy to the extent that it’s a hostage to US monetary policy.”
China’s interest in the European economies may provide an opportunity for the UK economy, as it is a country with ideal investment conditions and is already one of China’s most important trading partners. David Cameron, in a meeting with Wen, has said he wants bilateral trade to increase to £62bn by 2015. The amount is nothing in comparison to the trade deal between China and Germany, but still a significant potential sum for the UK economy. The following articles consider the Chinese economy and its role in the global environment.
Self-interest in China’s helping hand Asia Times Online, Jian Junbo (30/6/11)
China and Germany ink $15bn trade deals as leaders meet BBC News (29/6/11)
Chinese leader’s visit to Germany ends with large trade deals The New York Times, Judy Dempsey (28/6/11)
China offers helping hand to Eurozone Guardian, Helen Pidd (28/6/11)
Rights, trade to dominate Germany-China talks Associated Press, Deborah Cole (28/6/11)
China promises EU ‘helping hand’ with debt crisis Reuters, James Pomfret and Stephen Brown (28/6/11)
We still don’t grasp how little we matter to China Independent, Hamish McRae (29/6/11)
- What are the benefits of trade?
- Why is it important for the Chinese economy to diversify its export market?
- What does it mean by the statement that China is hostage to US monetary policy?
- Why are China’s foreign exchange reserves at a record high?
- What are the reasons behind China’s interest in Europe? Is it more of a ‘helping hand’ or more to do with furthering China’s own ambitions?
- What might the trade deal between China and Germany mean for trade between China and other nations? Is the deal to the benefit of everyone?
The possibility of currency and trade wars and how to avert them were major topics at the G20 meeting in Seoul on 11 and 12 November 2010. Some countries, such as the USA and the UK have been running large current account deficits. Others, such as China, Germany and Japan have been running large current account surpluses. But balance of payments accounts must balance. Thus there have been equal and opposite imbalances on the financial plus capital accounts. Large amounts of finance and capital have flowed from the trade-surplus to the trade-deficit countries. In particular China holds a vast amount of US dollar assets: a debt for the USA.
The trade and finance imbalances are linked to exchange rates. The USA has accused China of keeping its exchange rate artificially low, which boosts Chinese exports and further exacerbates the trade and finance imbalances. The USA is keen to see an appreciation of the Chinese yuan (also known as the renminbi). The Chinese response is that the USA is asking China to take medicine to cure America’s disease.
So was the meeting in Seoul successful in achieving a global response to trade and exchange rate problems? Has it averted currency and trade wars? Or were national interests preventing a concrete agreement? The articles look at the outcomes of the talks.
G20 pledge to avoid currency war gets lukewarm reception Guardian, Phillip Inman and Patrick Wintour (12/11/10)
G20 fails to agree on trade and currencies Financial Times, Chris Giles, Alan Beattie and Christian Oliver (12/11/10)
Main points of the G20 Seoul summit document Reuters (12/11/10)
Factbox: Outcome of the Seoul G20 summit Reuters (12/11/10)
No deal: Seoul’s G20 summit fails to deliver on currencies, trade imbalances The Australian, Laurence Norman and Ian Talley, Dow Jones Newswires (12/11/10)
G20 to tackle US-China currency concerns BBC News (12/11/10)
The expectations game BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (12/11/10)
Obama: Imbalances threaten growth BBC News (12/11/10)
Obama leaves G-20 empty-handed on currency spat msnbc (12/11/10)
The ghost at the feast The Economist, Newsbook blog (12/11/10)
Forget summit failures, look at G20 record Financial Times, Christian Oliver, Chris Giles and Alan Beattie (12/11/10)
Obama warns nations not to rely on exports to US BBC News (13/11/12)
G20 summit distracted by ‘currency wars’ Guardian, Mark Weisbrot (12/11/10)
Current account targets are a way back to the future Financial Times podcasts, Martin Wolf (2/11/10) (Click here for transcript)
Ben Bernanke hits back at Fed critics BBC News (19/11/10)
Why should you care about currency wars? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/11/10)
G20 Korea, home page
Korean G20 site
2010 G-20 Seoul summit Wikipedia
- What are the causes of the large trade imbalances in the world?
- What problems arise from large trade imbalances?
- What is meant by beggar-my-neighbour policies?
- Are moves towards freer trade a zero-sum game? Explain.
- Are moves towards protectionism a zero-sum game? Explain.
- Are attempts to get a realignment of currencies a zero-sum game? Explain.
- How successful has the G20 been over the past two or three years?
- Would it be desirable for governments to pursue current account targets?