In May, the United States slapped new tariffs on steel pipe imports from China. In June, China imposed new barriers on U.S. and European Union exports of adipic acid, an industrial chemical used to make nylon and polyester resin. In July, the EU also decided to restrict imports of steel pipe from China.
The important question now is, do these events foreshadow spiraling protectionism and tit-for-tat retaliation that threaten a global trade war? Or is trade policy always like this, and we’re just noticing more now, given the global slowdown and heightened fears of Smoot-Hawley-style protectionism?
A new set of data on protectionism can help answer that question. The World Bank’s newly updated Global Antidumping Database, which I help organize, displays in almost real time emerging trends in this form of protectionism in more than 20 of the largest economies in the World Trade Organization. Some of the numbers are worrying.
The count of newly imposed protectionist policies like antidumping duties and other “safeguard” measures increased by 31% in the first half of 2009 relative to the same period one year ago, which itself is not an alarming number. But many governments take more than a year to make final decisions on such policies after receiving the initial request for protection from a domestic industry. The fact that industry requests for new import restrictions were 34% higher in 2008 relative to 2007 is a worrying trend even though 2007 saw a historical low in such requests. And with the recession continuing, requests for new import restrictions were 19% higher in the first half of 2009 relative to 2008.
This suggests a wave of new protectionist measures may be on the way. While leaders of the Group of 20 large economies unanimously pledged not to resort to protectionism at a Washington summit last November and reaffirmed this in London in April, virtually all of them have slipped at least a little bit.
Nor is it just the U.S., EU and China: Since the beginning of 2008, Indian companies alone are responsible for roughly 25% of all requests for new trade barriers, attacking a range of imports that include steel, DVDs, yarn, tires and a variety of industrial chemicals. While it is too early to know the final resolution of these new investigations, Indian policy makers have imposed at least preliminary barriers on more than 20 different products being investigated.
The burden of this protectionism is not uniformly distributed among exporting countries. In the first half of this year, China’s exporters were specifically named in more than 75% of these economies’ newly initiated investigations. In the second quarter, China’s exporters were targeted in all 17 of the cases in which new trade barriers were imposed around the world.
Despite all this bad news, there is a silver lining. The fact that countries may be resorting to antidumping actions and safeguards in lieu of other protectionist policies, such as across-the-board tariff increases or a proliferation of “Buy-America”-type provisions in national stimulus packages, is a partial sign of the strength and resilience of the rules-based WTO system. It is important to have a reliable trading system that allows for the transparency necessary to clearly see the new trade barriers, because industry demands for protectionism are somewhat inevitable in a recession.
That’s encouraging because “little” acts of protectionism could add up to a big problem. Having accurate data on the extent of the problem is important, but the only solution is for policy makers to recognize the dangers of the path they’re headed down.