Discarding a Utopian Vision for a World Divided: The Effect of Geopolitical Rivalry on the World Trading System



Alan Wm. Wolff | Peterson Institute for International Economics

The greater danger for the world trading system is not that it is at present being divided into two camps, one led by the United States and the other by China, but that the two largest trading countries, by their lack of adherence to and support for the multilateral trading system, may seriously damage it. Both rivals act outside the existing trade rules, creating negative examples that are not lost on other WTO members who may also choose to act outside of the system’s rules.

The relationship between the United States and China is destined to be increasingly fractious. The two countries occupy geopolitical tectonic plates, the movement of one unavoidably generating friction with the other. It is an open question as to how much the world economy, where the market has largely determined trade flows to date, will be reshaped to reflect geopolitical forces.

Global trade figures in gross terms do not reflect the growing geopolitical rivalry.

Despite being strong allies of the United States, for Germany, Japan, and Korea, China is the largest trading partner. In this still undivided world economy, the US, EU, Japan, and the Republic of Korea accounted for 42% of Chinese merchandise exports in 2021. In 2022, the EU, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and US supplied 43% of Chinese imports. Not even the invasion of Ukraine by China’s closest friend, Russia, has caused the trading system to divide into two camps – one led by Beijing and the other by Washington.

The overall numbers tell only part of the story. While the volume of trade between the US and China remains high, bilateral strategic decoupling is proceeding. This is a US-China bilateral phenomenon. It is reflected in the trade of others only selectively. For America’s allies, the US-China trade war had been a spectator event only. Two exceptions began to occur – one for supplying geostrategic-relevant goods, services and technology, and a second the result of identifying sources of geostrategic relevant supplies. Where the US pressed Japan and the Netherlands to join in restricting exports to China of semiconductor production equipment, they have done so. Separately, learning from the European experience with excess dependency on Russia for fossil fuels, Western capitals have begun planning the diversification of sourcing of critical minerals, to avoid dependency on a single country, particularly China.

Any decoupling that does occur between China and the West will likely be substantially “made-in-China”, that is caused by China’s own policies. US preaching in favor of supply chain resilience would fall on deaf ears were there no concerns generated by China with respect to its reliability as a supplier of critical materials.

The general trade policies of the two rivals will also shape trade flows. China is aggressively moving to lower barriers to its trade with others, first through RCEP and then applying to join CPTPP. The United States has moved in the opposite direction, failing to deepen economic relationships with even its avowed friends. In fact, through its recent trade measures it has tended to alienate these trading partners.

Other factors, not traditionally the subject of trade agreements, will contribute to fragmenting the trading world. The contest over global standards has yet to play out – setting standards regarding 5G telecommunications, internet protocols, privacy, AI, electric vehicles and other products at the frontiers of technology may divide markets. Potential effects on trade can be expected as a result of the debt owed to China by the beneficiaries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s other development programs. For example, the need to repay debt has enabled privileged Chinese access to raw materials, a phenomenon just beginning to be witnessed. The exponential growth of Chinese overseas investment, which will affect trade, is likewise at an early stage. Another factor is the RMB perhaps taking on a more central role as a global currency. All of these economic and financial variables may play a part in shaping world trade. 

None of the aforementioned influences may prove to be as consequential for world trade as the deterioration of the multilateral trading system itself. The immense increase in global economic prosperity made possible by international trade over the last three-quarters of a century has depended in very large part on the certainty provided by the rule of law. As the two largest trading countries begin to ignore the existing structure of rules, this could become a tipping point, seen in retrospect as the end of an era and the beginning of another, a darker one. If the rules are increasingly ignored, the new age would more likely than not be characterized by slower economic growth and fragmented trade.

This is not to suggest that either of the two contesting powers have a conscious plan to discard the current trading system. Neither appears to have reached the conclusion that an end to the multilateral trading system would be in its interest. It is possible that neither is fully conscious of the spreading damage caused by their acting at cross purposes with the current rules. But their conduct is telling. In the case of the US, the departure from the international rule of law is demonstrated by ending binding WTO dispute settlement by blocking Appellate Body appointments, applying tariffs at odds with its contractual commitments (tariffs on trade with China in general and embracing a national security rationale to restrict steel and aluminum imports from all sources), and unapologetically subsidizing domestic industries without regard to any international rules. China’s departure from the rules is at one and the same time more overt and more opaque. China uses trade measures for purposes of coercion and denies that market forces must govern competitive outcomes as it increases the role of the state and the Communist party in its economy.

Neither Washington nor Beijing has declared an end to its adherence to the WTO-administered multilateral trading system. The reverse is the case. Perhaps current conduct at odds with the system is an aberration. US officials state that there is no general policy of decoupling from the Chinese economy. China’s policy of working towards “dual circulation” has not been accompanied by it announcing a retreat from global trade. What is clear is that each wishes to be less reliant on trading with the other. The world has seen nothing like this in inter-hemispheric trade since US measures toward the Empire of Japan in 1940-41, and no analogy with the past is a sufficient guide to the future.

The game changers for the global trading system consist of the adoption by the United States and China, for domestic reasons, of economic nationalism as a controlling factor in formulating their foreign economic policies. In the US the Trump Administration embraced economic nationalism primarily with rhetoric. The Biden Administration made the rhetoric reality in its major economic legislative initiatives. For China, nationalist policies were evident in its statements about achieving dominance in key industries of the future and the episodic deployment of trade measures for purposes of coercion. China’s domestic concerns for regime stability and its contest with the United States led it to support Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. Its priorities blinded it to the inevitable Western reaction. Neither nation has room in its current world view for actively supporting multilateralism.

Most other countries continue to steer an uncertain, non-aligned course, which may increasingly be governed by ad hoc determinations of self-interest. The world’s largest trading bloc, the European Union, has called for a policy of “strategic autonomy”. Whatever this turns out to be, it is not a vote to join Beijing or Washington in a trading bloc, nor is it a declaration in favor of the multilateral trading system. As for some of the others, one would not expect to hear from India nor South Africa that adherence to the existing multilateral trading system is a national priority. Neither are there any indications whatsoever of any country, including these two, aspiring to join a trade bloc.

The bottom line: world trade is not at present coalescing into two trading blocs, but the center, the multilateral trading system, is under stress. The question increasingly asked in academic symposia is whether it will hold.


Alan Wm. Wolff is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He was Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Deputy US Special Representative for Trade Negotiations (USTR), and USTR General Counsel. He was a principal draftsman for the administration of the Trade Act of 1974, which provided the basic US negotiating mandate for future US trade negotiations. His book, Revitalizing the World Trading System (Cambridge University Press), is being published this month.

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