The WTO is the world’s primary trading system, comprised of 164 member-economies scattered across all of the world’s five continents, and it is obviously in the interests of the world that it works effectively. But growing disputes between China and the Western economies are making the World Trade Organization increasingly dysfunctional. Could the result be a radical overhaul of the global trading system?
For many in Beijing, the trade war confirms long-held suspicions that the United States is determined to thwart China’s rise as the world’s next superpower. As a result, US demands that China abandon Made in China 2025 have also tended to be viewed by Beijing as being motivated not by concerns over fair competition, but by a desire to make sure America keeps its lead in the global innovation race. Public statements from senior figures in the Trump administration have fueled these concerns—the trade war not as an isolated incident, but part of a longer history of US attempts to undermine rival powers.
China led the world technologically in the early 15th century, yet Europe surpassed it overnight. How did this come about? Maverick economist Deirdre McCloskey offers an answer in her work. Although in her youth she fell under the sway of socialist economists, she brings an iconoclasts’ view to her subject believing it is wrong to limit the achievements of humanity to academic theories concerned solely with maximization of utility. Her latest book, Bourgeois Equality, is the concluding volume in a trilogy that seeks to explain “The Bourgeois Era,” which she believes laid the basis for the material and spiritual wealth enjoy by the modern world.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is “a fusion of technologies” that blurs the lines “between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” according to Klaus Schwab, the founder of the Davos Forum. This fusion of so many fields will ultimately see 4IR change the world far more fundamentally than the first three industrial revolutions. Any analysis of the many technological breakthroughs that now define this new 4IR business world is incomplete at best if it misses the China factor. At the dawn of the 4IR era, China is much better positioned than in the past to seize the opportunities offered by an industrial transformation.
The Chinese economy faces some serious problems, including a slowing GDP growth, environmental degradation and financial disequilibrium. According to Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, there are some specific solutions, such as making sure that opportunities for children are the same regardless of where in China and to whom they are born, making sure that the success of enterprises depends on the quality of what they sell and taxes are collected in a fair way and, finally, making sure that those who lead enterprises and communities do so for the benefit of their stakeholders.
Global trade used to be hailed with no doubt. But today, the international mood for globalization has to a great extent shifted. The deeply-held views on free trade and open access for all, which are at the heart of the globalization trend of recent decades, have been joined by ever-more insistent drum beats of dissent. From Europe and North America particularly, but from other places as well, there are calls for a rollback, for trade restrictions, for sanctions and barriers. There are those in the West who believe that to protect jobs and industries, it is necessary to replace “globalization” with “de-globalization.”
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