At stake is the post-World War Two concord on globalisation that proponents say has helped lift so much of the world out of poverty. China, the host of the Group of 20 meeting, has itself been one of the biggest winners from free trade, becoming the world’s leading exporter.
But Britain’s shock vote in June to leave the EU and the rise of protectionist Donald Trump in the United States has shaken that accord ahead of the G20 summit in Hangzhou that starts on Sunday.
“This meeting – the first since Brexit and the US presidential primaries – should send a clear message that world leaders have heard people’s concerns about globalisation and are taking steps to better understand and address them,” said associate professor Mark Melatos at the University of Sydney.
“The risk is that nothing much will be achieved,” he warned. “More platitudes about the benefits of global trade and investment will ring hollow.”
While there have been recent concessions that not everyone wins out of globalisation - US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this week spoke of anxious and angry people who felt left behind - the White House has also signalled a renewed push on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal as President Barack Obama’s term winds down.
The G20 earned its spurs with a concerted reaction to the 2008 global financial crisis, but recently opposition to free trade seems to have gained purchase and a coherent defence has been lacking.
Among the biggest sticking points is overcapacity in the global steel industry, a sore point for China as the world’s largest producer of the metal. Other concerns include barriers to foreign investment, and the risk of currency devaluations to protect export markets.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde told Reuters this week that G20 leaders need to do far more to spur demand, bolster the case for trade and globalisation, and fight inequality.
She described the global economic outlook as “slightly declining growth, fragile, weak and certainly not fuelled by trade.”
The Centre for Economic Policy Research estimates that in the first eight months of 2016 alone G20 governments implemented nearly 350 measures that harmed foreign interests.
“The jumps in G20 protectionism in 2015 and 2016 coincide ominously with the halt in the growth of global trade volumes,” the European think tank said in a trade report published ahead of the Sept 4-5 meeting.
The Washington-based US Chamber of Commerce on Thursday fired a broadside at what it saw as creeping protectionism in the information and communications technology sector, releasing a report citing aggressive new measures from China to Russia to the EU.
“The Chamber is deeply concerned that a growing number of the measures documented in the report have the effect of advancing protectionist objectives in the name of national security,” it said in the 107-page report.
National security was the reason given by Australia’s government when it rejected Chinese bids for an electricity grid last month, a decision that Beijing labelled as “protectionist”.