The Threat of a Global Trade War

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Workers walk amid vast numbers of containers at a port in Yingkou, in China's Liaoning province

It is an article of faith among economists that rising global protectionism intensified the Great Depression of the 1930s. History looks back at the infamous Smoot-Hawley Act, which jacked up tariffs in the U.S., as a disastrous step that stymied the international economic cooperation needed to alleviate the worst economic catastrophe in modern history. Even the U.S. State Department says the act "quickly became a symbol of the 'beggar thy neighbor' policies of the 1930s." Between 1929 and 1934, world trade declined by about two-thirds.

Here we are, almost 80 years later, and possibly about to make the same mistake. Although there have been no headline-grabbing Smoot acts to call the world's attention to the threat, there is mounting evidence that, once again, government and business leaders are inching toward the type of beggar-thy-neighbor policies of the Great Depression. "Particularly, I am concerned about the rising dangers of protectionism," World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently said in Singapore. "This financial and economic and unemployment problem is serious enough," he later added. "If we start to trigger a round of protectionism, as you saw in the 1930s, it could deepen the global crisis." (See pictures of TIME's Wall Street covers.)

No one apparently has told Vladimir Putin. Last month the Russian government announced an increase in tariffs on imported cars, sparking angry protests from motorists. The move is meant to support a local car industry that temporarily shuttered factories because of withering demand. "Now that our producers are forced to slash production, I think it is absolutely unacceptable to spend money on acquiring [imported] foreign cars," Putin said. In Indonesia, the government is slapping import restrictions on about 500 items. Importers will require licenses and can only bring in the goods through specified ports. The decree announcing the measures said they were necessary because "the global economic crisis has resulted in uncertainty and caused unbeneficial impact to the economy of Indonesia."

Yet the traditional tariff is not the only tool governments are using these days to influence trade. More important perhaps is the financial support that states are offering to industrial firms to aid them in the global competition for a shrinking pool of consumer demand. Most obvious of these steps was Washington's $17 billion bailout of the U.S. auto industry. Now American steelmakers are lobbying the incoming Obama Administration to include "Buy America" provisions in the proposed government stimulus package, to favor their own steel over foreign imports. A state development fund in Taiwan is raising $6 billion to aid companies in the industries considered strategic for the economy; Taiwan chipmaker Powerchip Semiconductor has already applied for government help. China, meanwhile, has restored or raised tax rebates over the past six months on more than 3,700 export items, including many consumer goods like toys, to assist struggling small exporters. The rebates can help keep the prices of Chinese exports low and more competitive.

It is these types of export-at-all-costs policies that some economists worry will cause a resurgence of 1930s-style antitrade policies. Jim Walker, an economist at independent research firm Asianomics in Hong Kong, says "the big danger" in Asia is a "round of competitive devaluations" of Asian currencies that sparks protectionism in the West. Walker fears that China, in its efforts to support growth and the millions employed in export factories, will eventually allow the yuan to depreciate, forcing all other Asian countries to do the same to keep their exports competitive. "If conditions do worsen, then every lever in the Chinese toolkit will be pulled" to muster a recovery, Walker says. Michael Hartnett, an international strategist at Merrill Lynch, recently told TIME that his potential big "surprise" for the world economy in 2009 is a surge of cheap exports from China, "causing some flare-up in terms of protectionism."

All we can hope is that government leaders have learned the lessons of the past. In a statement issued at the G-20 summit in Washington in November, the participants insisted that they understood "the critical importance of rejecting protectionism and not turning inward in times of financial uncertainty." In times of economic stress, however, it is often difficult to prioritize the greater good.

With reporting by Lin Yang / Beijing; Natalie Tso / Taipei; and John Curran / New York

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