Trade Restrictions Relax After Early Pandemic Surge

Date: Thursday, November 19, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

A surge in new trade restrictions that began in 2017 has waned over the course of 2020, as governments eased some of the barriers they put up early in the coronavirus pandemic.

In the early weeks of the outbreak, a number of governments rushed to protect their supplies of medical equipment and food, imposing a series of restrictions on exports. That led to fears of a fresh escalation of trade conflicts.

But in a twice-yearly report on trade measures taken by the Group of 20 leading economies, the World Trade Organization said governments took fewer actions to either ease or restrict trade than in the previous six-month period, while most of the actions they did take were intended to free the movement of goods across borders.

That period of relative peace comes as President-elect Joe Biden begins to craft his new trade policies and prepares to review the many new levies on global imports imposed by President Trump. Those levies, many on China, played a central role in raising global trade tensions in the years leading into the pandemic.

The Geneva-based dispute settlement body said the decline in trade measures reflected a focus on the more pressing business of containing the pandemic, as well as the fact that there was much less trade to restrict.

The WTO said G-20 members had announced 133 trade measures that were specifically related to the pandemic. Of those, it judged 84 to be intended to facilitate trade, and 49 to restrict trade.

It also said that many measures—on products such as disinfectants and personal protective equipment—enacted in the early stages of the pandemic had been reversed.

However, the WTO noted that the modest number of new measures designed to limit imports came on top of an already large stock of measures that have accumulated since 2009, and now cover almost 10% of G-20 imports.

Global Trade Alert, a nongovernmental trade-monitoring group in Geneva, was much more critical in its assessment of global trade policies. In a report released Monday on the first 10 months of the year, it recorded a jump in measures that affected trade partners from the same period last year, and said most of those were negative.

“For sure, not every element of pandemic response had consequences for trading partners,” said Simon J. Evenett, a professor of economics at the University of St. Gallen and founder of the GTA. “Of those that did, three-quarters were harmful.”

The GTA found that the U.K. and the U.S. enacted the largest number of measures that hurt their trade partners, with 124 and 117 such actions respectively. Both countries have historically seen themselves as advocates of free trade.

The GTA’s definition of a trade-related measure is broader than that of the WTO, and it included countries outside the G-20. Both reports were published ahead of a virtual meeting of G-20 leaders which is due to take place on Nov. 21 and 22.


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