Economic Liberalisation is not enoughTablet, 9th September, 2005Philip Booth
The chaos surrounding the import restrictions on Chinese clothing has brought to the fore some enduring concerns about free trade and globalisation. The dispute between China and the European Union has arisen because the EU, under pressure from certain members with a tradition of protectionism and other members with large textile industries, has replaced the multi-fibre agreement with specific textile import quotas on China.
The multi-fibre agreement and its predecessor regulated trade in textiles for 43 years and were notorious for the costs they imposed on developing countries. The main concern of those who oppose free trade in textiles is that the EU will be flooded with cheap imports putting at risk thousands of jobs. Concerns have also been expressed that countries that have traditionally exported to the EU for example North African countries such as Morocco will suffer and their development will be impeded, as China corners the world market in textiles.
These views are encouraged by the caricature of international trade as a competition that some win and some lose. Political journalists talk of trade disputes being resolved by negotiations and deals. On the day that a provisional deal was agreed between the EU and China, the BBC reported that the US was embroiled in a textile war of words. But, the development of new trading opportunities involves quite different processes and leads to mutual advantage. A world where the EU, or even one country such as Britain, produces nothing and imports everything from China is not possible. How would we buy Chinese goods if we did not have foreign currency from selling British made goods? Why would the Chinese work to produce goods for Britain whilst not receiving anything in exchange? Trade between the EU and China involves the EU producing goods and services that it is relatively better at producing and exchanging those for goods and services that are relatively costly to produce in the EU. Both sides benefit from the specialisation that results from trade.
Thus, in Britain, high value-added engineering products, insurance and banking services and education are traded for cheaper clothing and toys. British consumers benefit from cheaper products and British workers benefit from specialising in the production of higher value-added goods and services. With the money generated from the fees from a handful of Chinese MBA and Masters students at my university, Cass Business School, all the citizens of a medium sized English town could buy an imported Chinese shirt each. Trade is a two-way process, not a one-way process. Of course, the MBA graduates then return to China to assist further in the economic development of their country.
So why is there pressure for protectionism? The costs of changing trade patterns are frequently highly visible and concentrated amongst groups who have a loud political voice for example, clothing manufacturers in southern Europe. The beneficiaries of increased trade with China are hidden and may not even realise themselves that they are beneficiaries. The political voice in favour of trade and against protectionism is therefore a weak one. But, also, in much of the EU, there is a very real chance that a smooth transition of economic activity from one sector to another, as market conditions change and trade liberalises, will not take place. Europes constipated labour markets make the running down of one industry that much more painful and the development of alternative, higher value added, forms of employment much less likely.
A similar problem besets countries such as Morocco which is now an exporter of clothes to the EU but whose exports may be undermined by cheaper Chinese goods. Part of the reason for the import quotas on Chinese textiles is that protectionists within the EU wish to preserve traditional trading relationships with former colonies. In theory resources in Morocco should move to other industries if the textile industry is undermined by more efficient C