In Shanghai not long ago, I took a walk from my hotel along Nanjing Road to the Bund, the promenade on the banks of the Huangpu where visitors from China's hinterland gather to gaze across the river, awestruck, at the ultramodern skyscrapers of Pudong that have transformed the city's skyline in not much more than a decade. It wasn't what was on the far side, though, that got my attention: it was the traffic on the river itself, great container ships, chuffing lighters, bulk carriers, every sort of waterborne vessel you could imagine carrying every imaginable cargo, churning up the waters.
It's not what one is used to in the West. In the U.S. and Europe, we have prettified our rivers, turning city waterfronts into places where genteel folk ride their bikes or snack in the open air. But in Asia not just in Shanghai, but along the Chao Phraya in Bangkok, or in Hong Kong's harbor waterways are not pretty at all. They are busy places of work and commerce, the arteries of trade, that age-old process of exchange that, more than anything else, has lifted millions of Asians out of poverty in two generations. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)
At least, they were. The economic crisis has hit world trade hard. Ports throughout the world are dramatically less busy than they were just a few months ago; air traffic is way down. Exports from Japan were almost 50% less in February compared with the same month in 2008; China's exports were down 26% in February. The World Trade Organization is predicting global trade will shrink by 9% this year, the steepest annual decline since World War II. This contraction is not only deep, it is also a latter-day rarity: global trade has increased continuously year after year since 1982. (Read "The Threat of a Global Trade War.")
The main culprits are not hard to divine. As households in the rich world, battered by a collapse in the values of their assets, start saving again, their appetite for new cars and consumer electronics has diminished. And as banks try to rebuild their shattered balance sheets, capital that would once have been used to finance trade is staying in their vaults.
But if reduced demand and financial flows explain the immediate cause of the downturn in trade, a different and potentially more damaging specter looms: the return of protectionism. In a recent report, the World Bank found that although the G-20 nations pledged themselves to avoid protectionist measures when they met in Washington last November, no fewer than 17 of them have, since then, "implemented measures whose effect is to restrict trade at the expense of other countries."
The bank listed some of those measures: Russia has raised tariffs on used cars, Argentina imposed new licensing arrangements for imports, China banned Irish pork, India banned Chinese toys. No fewer than 13 countries have granted subsidies to various parts of the automobile industry. And the bank didn't mention the nasty spat that has broken out between the U.S and Mexico; the U.S. has stopped a program that allowed Mexican trucks on American roads, and Mexico has retaliated with tariff increases. Said World Bank president Robert Zoellick: "Leaders must not heed the siren song of protectionist fixes. Economic isolationism can lead to a negative spiral of events such as those we saw in the 1930s, which made a bad situation much, much worse."
Zoellick got it just about right. Economic historians will long argue about the relative impact of trade restrictions led by the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930 on the scale of the Great Depression. The U.S. economy was much less integrated into a global economic system then than it is now. But given the retaliation from America's trading partners after the new tariffs were applied, few would argue with Zoellick's assessment that the contraction of trade in the 1930s made the long downturn worse than it needed to be. "Protectionism," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told TIME recently, "is the road to ruin."