Jul 10th 2018

Trade Barriers Will Not Stop China’s Rise

by Aidar Turner

 

Adair Turner, Chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and former Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, is Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission.


 

LONDON – There are widespread worries that US President Donald Trump’s protectionism will erode the long-term benefits of global trade. There are also hopes, mostly among Trump’s supporters – including many US companies – that tough policies can prevent China from becoming America’s technological equal. But worries about the long-term impact of reduced global trade may be exaggerated, and the hope of keeping China down has no chance of being fulfilled.

Trade occurs for three reasons. For starters, countries have different inherent resources: some have oil, others copper; some grow bananas, others wheat. If that trade were stopped, global prosperity would suffer. But trade in commodities and agricultural goods actually counts for a minor share of total trade, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Trade also reflects differences in labor costs. Low-cost countries produce labor-intensive manufactured goods, using machinery imported from high-labor-cost countries. As economists such as MIT’s David Autor have shown the impact of this in developed countries can be both bad for some workers and good for company profits. But it can be extremely good for any developing country that fosters a fruitful balance of inward investment and local entrepreneurship and uses the proceeds of export-led growth to invest in infrastructure and skills. China’s dramatic economic success would have been impossible without trade initially driven by labor-cost differences.

In the future, however, this type of trade will probably become less important. With wages in China now rising rapidly, its labor-cost advantage is fast diminishing. And while many people assume that manufacturing will then move to other low-wage countries – say, in Africa – much of it may return to advanced economies, though to highly automated factories that create very few jobs.

Finally, specialization and economies of scale in manufacturing, research and development, and brands generate trade between equally rich countries. European luxury cars are exported to the US, Harley Davidsons are imported into Europe, and multiple highly specialized items of capital equipment are traded in both directions.

Once these trade connections are in place, any sudden change in tariffs will be severely disruptive. So Trump’s policies undoubtedly pose a major short-term threat to global growth. But in the long term, trade between continents of roughly equal income per capita is less crucial to prosperity than often assumed.

The key issue is how large an economic area is needed to foster economies of scale and complex integrated supply chains while still maintaining intense competition among multiple firms. If a country like Ireland, with a population of five million, tried to be self-sufficient in all goods, its income would be a fraction of today’s level. Even if much larger Britain, France, or Germany attempted autarky, the hit to productivity and living standards would be very large.

But China’s continental economy of 1.4 billion people could achieve almost all possible economies of scale while still maintaining intense internal competition; in principle, India could, too. The United States, with 300-plus million people, would suffer only slightly if it exported and imported little beyond its borders, and the same is true for the European Union’s single market of 520 million.

Beyond some point, the potential benefits of wider trade between equally rich countries inevitably decline. If there was less trade among the continental-scale economies of China, the US, and Europe in 2050 than there is today, the direct impact on living standards would be small.

What would be lost without global trade – and even more so without investment flows – would be the transfer of knowledge, technology, and best practices. China’s economic takeoff began with labor-cost arbitrage, but has been sustained by massive knowledge transfer. And while a small element of that transfer reflected industrial espionage, the vast majority was automatic, legal, and inevitable.

Chinese workers and managers employed by Western companies learned new techniques. Suppliers had to meet high standards, and local entrepreneurs could then draw on quality supply chains to compete. Joint ventures inevitably led to knowledge transfer to local partners, and Western companies willingly entered them to gain access to China’s huge internal market.

The US is now worried about China’s rising technological prowess. Businesses regret the loss of economic rents that arise from superior technology and intellectual property; and national security hawks worry about the potential geopolitical consequences of America’s eroding technological edge. Tariffs on Chinese goods are in part a response to such concerns, and limits on Chinese acquisitions of American high-tech companies address this perceived threat directly.

But it is simply too late. If, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the US government, rather than arguing for Chinese economic opening, had prohibited any US company from investing there, China’s rise would have been significantly delayed, though not permanently prevented.

Because that did not happen, China’s rise is now self-sustaining. A huge and increasingly affluent domestic market will make exports less vital to growth. Rapidly rising wages are creating strong incentives for best-practice application of robotics, and China’s companies are becoming cutting-edge innovators in artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, and renewable energy. And President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” program will help foster a shift to high-value manufacturing supported by Chinese domestic R&D. Even if the US now slammed the trade and investment doors shut, it would make little difference to China’s rising economic and political power.

That is not true of poorer developing economies, such as India and all of Africa, which hope to emulate China’s rapid rise. These economies already face the threat that automation will foreclose job creation in export-oriented factories. The most important priority amid today’s Trump-induced turmoil is to ensure that such challenges are not exacerbated by harmful restrictions on trade.


Adair Turner, Chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and former Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, is Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.
Oct 3rd 2018
.....here we are in 2018, 40 years after Camp David. The Palestinian dream of an independent state is not only unrealized but is most likely unrealizable. With many Palestinians now favoring a one state solution......the once "Arab minority"  is now a majority.....
Sep 25th 2018
The US stock market, as measured by the monthly real (inflation-adjusted) S&P Composite Index, or S&P 500, has increased 3.3-fold since its bottom in March 2009. This makes the US stock market the most expensive in the world, according to the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio that I have long advocated. Is the price increase justified, or are we witnessing a bubble?
Sep 23rd 2018
Global debt recently hit a new record high of 225% of world GDP, amounting to US$164 trillion. The world is now 12 points deeper in debt than the previous peak in 2009, with advanced economies’ ratios at levels not seen since World War II.
Sep 18th 2018
To understand them, it is worth looking at three reputable leaders who died this summer: former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former British Foreign Secretary and NATO Secretary-General Peter Carrington, and US Senator John McCain. Having worked with Annan and for Carrington, I can vouch for their grace, honor, and commitment to truth. McCain plainly had the same qualities, not to mention a level of personal bravery far beyond what is expected of most of us (though it should be noted that Carrington was also a war hero). These leaders’ combination of honor and commitment to truth – two attributes that are intrinsically connected – is nowhere to be seen in Trump or Johnson.
Sep 18th 2018
From controlling the media to stoking nationalism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always known how to keep his approval ratings high. But Russians’ lives are not getting any better, especially after the latest round of Western economic sanctions – and Putin’s declining approval rating shows it.
Sep 15th 2018
As we mark the decennial of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there are still ongoing debates about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and whether the lessons needed to prepare for the next one have been absorbed. But looking ahead, the more relevant question is what actually will trigger the next global recession and crisis, and when. The current global expansion will likely continue into next year, given that the US is running large fiscal deficits, China is pursuing loose fiscal and credit policies, and Europe remains on a recovery path. But by 2020, the conditions will be ripe for a financial crisis, followed by a global recession. There are 10 reasons for this. First, the fiscal-stimulus policies that are currently pushing the annual US growth rate above its 2% potential are unsustainable. By 2020, the stimulus will run out, and a modest fiscal drag will pull growth from 3% to slightly below 2%.
Sep 12th 2018
Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on October 29.
Sep 5th 2018
Wars are expensive, as the Russian people are now learning. The Kremlin is pursuing military adventures in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, and though these conflicts are limited in scope, one wonders if the country can really afford them.
Sep 1st 2018
This week, the California state legislature voted to mandate that all the state’s electricity come from non-carbon sources (chiefly wind, solar and hydro) by 2045. Since California if it were a country would have the world’s fifth largest economy, and since so many other states are economically integrated with it, this plan, if signed by governor Jerry Brown, could help transform the entire country. The goal is less difficult than it seems on the surface. California had already committed to getting one third of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and reached that goal in 2017. It committed to getting 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and in fact will likely reach that goal 10 years early, in 2020.
Aug 29th 2018
Quote: "This may ultimately result in creation of a new accounting standard - the Enterprise Value of Data – which could become an integral part of financial statements, capturing the value of the largest and most ignored corporate asset: data."
Aug 29th 2018
What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu/Trump "marriage" has also helped to fuel the partisan divide. A Pew poll from earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpasses support for Israel among self-described "progressive" and "liberal" voters. And a recent Gallup poll shows that only 17% of Democrats now have a favorable view of the Israeli leader. 
Aug 27th 2018
History suggests that current-account imbalances ultimately matter a great deal. A still-unbalanced global economy may be forced to relearn that painful lesson in the coming years.