During the past month China seems to have emerged as a perhaps unlikely vocal champion of both free trade and the multilateral system. Local developments such as the imminent opening of a Shanghai free-trade zone to test economic reforms, seem to show evidence of the Chinese leadership’s willingness to open up their own markets, and the publication of a white paper entitled “China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation” appears to signal their global intentions.

Premier Li Keqiang used Roberto Azevedo’s inauguration as new Director General of the World Trade Organisation as a chance to publicly defend the multilateral trade system. He urged world leaders to make “bold decisions” to move the WTO negotiations forward as well as warning that the continued stalling of the Doha Round of talks could have a serious affect on the world’s economic recovery by encouraging protectionism. China seems willing to practise what it preaches as Li promised to promote growth by opening up markets to private competition and improving the conditions for foreign investment. In support of Doha, Li said that all trade arrangements should abide by the basic principles of being open, inclusive and transparent while resolutely opposing protectionism.

The need to fight against protectionism was echoed by President Xi when he addressed G20 leaders at this month’s St Petersburg Summit. In a three point proposal for advancing global trade, Xi exhorted his G20 peers to work with China to reject trade protectionism and develop an open world economy, strengthen the global multilateral trade system and push the Doha Round forward, and improve global value chains to establish an integrated global market.

At the end of August, China made another concrete display of its intentions in the global trading system with the publication of its China-Africa trade policy white paper. This paper includes plans for implementing the “Special Plan on Trade with Africa” which will expand the scope of zero tariff treatment for African products exported to China. The introduction of duty-free quota-free access for African products would be of huge benefit as China-Africa trade continues to rise – in 2009 China became Africa’s largest trade partner and the total volume of China-Africa trade reached nearly $200 billion last year.

The paper emphasises the developmental impact of their trading relationship, stating that this cooperation “has solidified the foundation of Africa’s economic development, increased Africa’s capacity for independent development, and improved Africa’s competitiveness in the global economic sphere”. It also sets out specific areas for attention in order to boost Africa’s trading capacity including a promise to help African countries improve their customs and commodity inspection facilities, and support trade facilitation.

The WTO Ministerial in Bali is looming and many are labelling the Summit a make or break moment for the multilateral trading system. We must hope that other world leaders will follow the Chinese example and declare their public support for an open, free and fair trading system that will enable developing countries to trade their way out of poverty.

summary

During the past month China seems to have emerged as a perhaps unlikely vocal champion of both free trade and the multilateral system. Both Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi have used prominent public speeches to defend the multilateral trade system and renounce protectionism, urging their fellow G20 leaders to make a concerted push for success at the WTO Ministerial in December. The publication of a China-Africa trade policy white paper also made it clear that China intends to become a major player in the trade and development arena across the developing world.

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