Home >Opinion >Online-views >The risk of trade wars becomes a reality

Names can reveal a lot. The recurring cold waves buffeting Europe are called “beast from the east" because of their origin in Siberia. It is unlikely that the trade chill arising in the US and threatening to freeze global commerce will be given a similar sobriquet. US’ controversial decision to levy import duties—25% on steel and 10% on aluminium imports—has given rise to martial terms like trade war, with many countries threatening to retaliate. But truth be told, this is one winter that is unlikely to thaw any time soon.

But all credit to US President Donald Trump for not deviating from script. Multiple risk forecasts for 2018 had predicted a ratcheting up of trade protectionism. The tariff order—purportedly for national security purposes and to save jobs in the US steel industry—fulfils these prophesies. It now becomes necessary to see how the ripples left behind have an impact on India. Below the currents lies another trade development which is taking shape slowly but with potential to affect India.

As numerous reports show, US’ steel and aluminium import levies do not harm India grievously. India’s exports of steel (raw and finished) and aluminium into the US do not exceed $2 billion: it’s less than 5% of the $42 billion exported to the US in 2016-17. The effects will be felt elsewhere: Intermediate goods that originate in the US and form part of the global supply chain will become more expensive and could slow down wheels of trade. A study by Christine McDaniel, former senior economist with the White House council of economic advisers, has shown this is the US’ trade war with itself, given that industries consuming steel to manufacture other products (such as automobiles or washing machines) employ more workers than steel mills.

There will be some indirect consequences for India as well, with many countries threatening to erect their own protectionist walls. According to a Standard and Poor’s publication Global Trade At Crossroads, the strong undertow will be felt globally: “The retaliatory spiral could lead to a breakdown in the global rules-based trading system and raise the risk of an all-out trade war, eventually hurting exporters both in the US and globally." At risk is India’s incipient export growth momentum: exports during April-February 2017-18 were $273.73 billion, 11% higher than the corresponding period of previous year.

Many commentators were critical of India’s higher import duty rates, presented during budget 2018-19, especially since they were introduced soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at Davos cautioned against growing protectionism. While the new tariffs do seem to contradict India’s stand on free trade, they are broadly consistent with its World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments and are within the bound rates fixed for India.

Trump’s trade actions and its contagion effects also do not violate WTO norms but, by bringing in a national security angle, could theoretically lead to a slow erosion of the global rules-based trading system. The WTO mini ministerial scheduled in Delhi from 19 March might provide a window into the future of the multilateral trading system.

As things stand, US has often been accused of subverting the WTO system when the going gets tough. It has been holding up the appointment of judges to WTO’s appellate body, actively preventing a satisfactory closure to the food security discussions and openly supporting bilateral deals over a multilateral solution. Its unilateral approach to trade—naming and shaming countries through Special 301 or its WTO-plus intellectual property laws—are regarded as openly contemptuous of multilateral systems.

On the sidelines, another global trade development is quietly challenging its predominance. On 8 March, 11 Asia-Pacific countries signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an improved version of the earlier Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which the US walked out. What makes the new agreement interesting, apart from 11 nations opting to go ahead without the US, is the relaxation of certain clauses specifically introduced by the US.

The new agreement puts on hold 20 provisions from the old draft, 11 of which relate to intellectual property rights (IPR) included at the US’ insistence. Among the changes introduced are a truncated patent protection phase for innovative medicines, or narrower data protection rules for new pharmaceutical products or biologics. Gone also are some of the onerous investor-state dispute settlement clauses.

India should be concerned about what remains on the books because some clauses could indirectly put pressure for an overhaul of its domestic policies: the chapter on state-owned enterprises is one example. By adopting these rules for trading within themselves, the 11 CPTPP members—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Peru, Chile and Vietnam—might demand other trade partners to follow some of these rules. They are unlikely to have one set of rules for TPP members and another set for other trade partners.

It is also quite likely, though not definite, that CPTPP will have a benign influence on other trade pacts involving India, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which has many common members with CPTPP and is currently being negotiated. India will have to be prepared for this eventuality.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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