WITA Webinar: Beggar Thy Neighbor, Impacts of COVID-19 on Trade and Health Care Supply Chains
Wendy Cutler with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA)
On Thursday, April 16, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), along with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA), cohosted a webinar about recent beggar-thy-neighbor trade restrictions that have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ASPI Vice President Wendy Cutler and WITA Executive Director Ken Levinson were joined by Amb. Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore's Ambassador to the United States, Amb. Rufus Yerxa, President of the National Foreign Trade Council, and Simon J. Evenett of the Swiss Institute of International Economics.
Cutler began the conversation by discussing the latest forecasts from the IMF, which predict a global contraction of 3 percent in 2020, including declining gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States, Singapore, and several other Asian or ASEAN countries such as Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand. "Let's just say the news is not good," she summarized, alluding to recently released Chinese trade data that showed even China is "by no means out of the woods, particularly as the European and the U.S. demand will be contracting in the coming months."
Mirpuri provided the Singaporean perspective on how the pandemic has hit Asian economies and had an impact on trade, and how countries across the Pacific Rim are responding. He emphasized that the region has launched several initiatives aimed at keeping trade channels open, particularly for vital supplies, and cited one particular joint ministerial agreement that Singapore has signed along with Australia, New Zealand, and a handful of regional partners. He also discussed recent ASEAN and ASEAN-Plus-Three virtual summits, summing up that, "In Asia, the region has been responding through a number of initiatives."
Yerxa presented the U.S. business perspective, and divided the way that many businesses view the pandemic into short- and long-term buckets. He admitted that, at the moment, longer-term trade goals are temporarily on hold. Where there are conflicts between short-term imperatives driven by COVID-19 and longer-term trade goals, "the pandemic takes precedence over them," he said. "What we need to be doing now is focusing entirely on how to make things better, not trying to sanction prior behaviors."
However, the two agreed that countries such as Singapore and the United States should not rely on protectionism, even during the pandemic. "The beggar-thy-neighbor approach to closing your exports means that others will close off their exports to you," said Mirpuri. "Singapore relies on these exports." Yerxa added that, in the United States, "We're five times more dependent on imports than on domestic supplies for an industry like protective clothing."
All panelists also pointed to the future, and stressed that trade conversations that had momentarily been put on the backburner would not be forgotten. "We want to make sure we don't lose focus on long-term priorities as we focus on the immediate crisis," Mirpuri said, as he emphasized that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could still be signed by the end of this year.
Yerxa agreed. "We're going to need to recognize that we need global trade in order to be successful," he said. "The countries that are the most open, innovative, and interconnected will probably do better."