TODAY marks another milestone in the escalating global trade war that threatens to shake the foundations of the world trading system and cause economic uncertainty at a time of financial fragility. It’s an altogether bad development that adds more gloom to global economic prospects.
Last week, the United States announced it would slap an additional 10% tariff on US$200bil worth of imports from China. Hours later, China said it would put 5% to 10% extra tariffs on US$60bil of imports from the US.
Both sets of tariff increases come into effect today. But that’s not all.
The US also said it would raise the extra tariffs on the US$200bil of imports from 10% now to 25% at the end of the year. And if China retaliates (which it now has), the US might slap higher tariffs on yet another US$267bil of Chinese imports.
This comes on top of tariffs on an initial US$50bil worth of imports that the US had placed on Chinese imports a few months ago, and equivalent tariffs on US$50bil on US imports that China imposed as retaliation.
And even before that, the US had put extra tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from all countries, except a few that were exempted for the time being.
The US is also threatening to put tariffs on imported auto vehicles and parts, including those from Europe. That is on hold because of a bilateral deal reached, but could be re-ignited if President Donald Trump is not satisfied with European behaviour.
The US itself is experiencing negative effects of this trade war. The prices of the initial US$50bil of imported Chinese products have started to go up in the US, raising costs for both consumers and producers.
The Chinese are similarly affected. Exports of both countries are also bound to decline, and this will eventually affect their overall economic growth.
There will be collateral effects on other countries. In Asia, those that are integrated in the global supply chain will find less demand for their exports of components to China. The effect on Malaysia is projected by analysts to be around 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point of GNP in 2019.
This could be offset by positive effects. Some companies producing in China are considering relocating to other countries, including Malaysia, to escape the US’ punitive tariffs. And some Malaysian products may become cheaper than Chinese products, which will now attract extra duties.
But it is likely that the bad effects will outweigh any such good effects, at least in the short run.
It is clear that the US is to blame for the trade war. Its unilateral actions are against the spirit and rules of the trading system, and have in fact undermined its legitimacy and viability.
The steel and aluminium tariffs were imposed under the US security clause of its domestic trade law, while the other tariff increases are under Section 301 of the trade law. The US actions are against various World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
Challenges to the US unilateral measures have been taken by China and other countries at the WTO. If the US is found in violation, which is quite likely, it has to stop its actions or face retaliation: the countries that win the cases heard by the WTO panels of experts are allowed to impose equivalent tariffs on US products.
However, the US has engineered a crisis in the WTO’s dispute settlement system so that soon the outcome of successful cases against it cannot be implemented.
This is because the US is now paralysing the WTO’s Appellate Body by refusing to allow new members of the body to be appointed to replace those retiring. Soon there will be only three members left, out of a full body of seven. Two more will be retiring in January 2019. A minimum of three members is needed to sit on a case.
Thus, if a lower-level panel rules against the US’ unilateral actions, and the US lodges an appeal that cannot be heard because there are not enough appellate body members, the panel decision cannot be enforced.
This would make the WTO quite a toothless organisation. There would be no legal remedy to enforce penalties for breaking the WTO laws. Countries that impose unilateral tariff increases can get away with it. In turn, other countries would also do the same.
The rules-based trade system is already starting to break down. We are now seeing blatant protectionism by the US and retaliation by affected countries. Within months, the trade war could spread, with the law of the jungle becoming more prominent.
Tears will not be shed in the developing countries if some rules cannot be upheld anymore, such as the WTO’s TRIPS agreement on intellectual property. The free trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati has said the TRIPS treaty does not belong in the WTO.
But what all members like about the WTO is its role in ensuring the predictability that their exports can sell in the markets of its members, with tariffs at rates agreed to at the WTO.
If that predictability is lost, then there can be a lot of uncertainty, as one country after another can unilaterally impose extra tariffs on other countries, which may then trigger retaliation.
This breakdown of the trading system may be the more serious effect of what started as a US-initiated trade war.
Trump may not care what happens to the system, as he has said many times that the WTO is a terrible organisation that the US should leave. And his recent actions, in fact, seem calculated to undermine, if not destroy it.
It is a new world we are looking at, in a scenario that would not have appeared possible a year or even months ago.
Policy makers, companies, analysts and the public should ponder about this, even as they follow the details of the tit-for-tat trade war that the US is waging against China and other countries.
Martin Khor is adviser of the Third World Network. The views expressed here are entirely his own.