International political observers were shocked by Brexit and then Donald Trump‘s US Presidential victory. These two events are potent enough to unnerve the contemporary global order: first, in matters relating to security and, second as to trade. By the end of next March, Theresa May will likely invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and the complex process of Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU) begins.
Also, it now has been a more than a month into Trump’s administration; and his flurry of Executive Orders have rocked the Washington, DC establishment.
This article examines the future of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) under this new Trump era and – with Brexit clearly on track – how MNCs will respond. Some global firms may arguably be in retreat given the political uncertainty introduced by these changes.
During the 20th century, China was lowering its bulwarks to trade and other exchange and started opening up to the world and the Soviet Union collapsing. The age of ‘Consumerism,’ had begun as Francis Fukuyama wrote in his seminal essay “The End of History.” At that time the idea of a global firm seemed quite attractive and lucrative. There was a vacuum, a space to be filled and the idea of the global firm was to fill this space. Companies grew, businesses sprawled begetting supply chains and creating jobs, trade relationships, luring stakeholders. Their businesses entail supply chains that cover 50% of world trade. Nevertheless, the global arbitrage that international trade has created is starting to shrink. Global business have become so large that it is, at times, difficult to manage the perplex, legal and logistical tapestry of carrying them out. Recalling the recent tax case of Apple Inc., Governments are now cracking on companies accused of tax evasion and as a result MNCs are stashing earnings in off-shore tax havens.
To give the above scenario some perspective, consider these facts: according to the UK Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE), the profits of the top 700-odd multinational firms have dropped by 25% and the ROE (return on equity) ratio is down by 7%- from “18% a decade ago to 11%”. The Economist magazine reported research “examining record of 500 large firms which shows “in eight out of ten sectors multinational firms have expanded their aggregate sales more slowly than their domestic peers”. We can see local firms, in some places, over taking or at least starting to take in some cases substantial market share from the MNCs. Take for example Uber’s surrender to the Sino giant Didi, in India and where Reliance mobile competing aggressively against Vodafone. Nevertheless this doesn’t means that global firms are totally in retreat but that their earlier dominance is now facing some heat from the local firms.
However, in some case global firms may have started to sense a change in hospitality by host countries to investment. This may provoke US and EU leaders such as Mr. Trump, Marine La Pen and other rightists and nationalists who are arguably perceived to be eager in targeting a scapegoat with their protectionist agendas. So, we see Mr. Trump’s success in exploiting the sentiments of the US people by peppering his slogans with rightest promises. His policies at face value may appear productive – that is, reducing taxes (now taking the shape of Border Adjustment tax), less regulations and bringing jobs back but they have caused an unnecessary and unwanted surge in the US dollar. This has led Janet Yellen to hint at an interest rate hike when the US Federal Reserve Bank’s FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meets next month in its policy setting meeting. It may be argued that a strong US dollar is not good for the US and its trading partners. Donald’s Trump’s proposed “twenty-percent tariff” (against Mexican imports), if implemented, will make the dollar appreciate further causing inflation. Economists will ask how? An article in The Atlantic explains by suggesting that “higher tax on imports paired with lower taxes on exports will theoretically cancel each other out, as demand increases for U.S. exports (such exports would be cheaper) and the U.S. will demand fewer foreign goods (since they’ll be more expensive). Economists assert that this will result in a shift in exchange rates that will offset taxes: in theory, the dollar will strengthen as a result of increased demand for cheaper American-made products. As a result of a stronger dollar, American-made products will be more expensive and foreign goods will become cheaper as a stronger dollar increases purchasing power thus, offsetting the import tax”.
Brexit is another complex facet where uncertainty is growing. Theresa May triggers article 50 by the end of next month financial and equity markets embrace for a long stretch of unpredictable negotiations that may take more than two years. According to many political analysts another key issue remains: immigration. In any case the EU is not going to allow the UK to enjoy preferential treatment without it (UK) allowing the free movement of people. We are going to see new trade deals between UK and other countries. But the UK is going to lose a huge export market in the form of the EU.
While we read through the tale of the slowdown of global businesses as a whole there exists a business, risk solution to this rise in populism and inclination for protectionism: Political Risk Insurance (or PRI). Lloyd’s of London, the oldest insurance market in the world, decided to move its subsidiary in Continental Europe after Brexit eventuated. Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s of London, says “. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing much more political-risk insurance being bought all over the place,” in an interview. Daniel Wagner, a Managing Director of Risk Solutions at Risk Cooperative, describes in an article for the Huffington Post how he predicted in the 1990’s that the PRI industry will grow in the years to come. He holds the same view today: “The PRI industry stands at a similar precipice today. With the looming possibility of trade wars, deterioration in investment climates, and ever tightening lending standards, there is every reason to believe that, as much as the industry has grown – and that growth has been dramatic over the past 25 years – it also stands to grow dramatically in the coming 5-10 years.”
Certainly, the world is in the midst of a change. On political and as well as economic front. The global firms, as aforementioned, are already in for a correction. But Mr. Trump’s protectionism, his tweet-tantrums and talks of trade wars and the uncertainty of the British divorce from the EU, which, according to some, bodes ill for the bloc’s future, may accelerate the process of natural adjustment. Such an acceleration is detrimental to the international trade as a whole. We are standing on what seems the first page of this new chapter, let’s hope that there’s a pleasant quirk somewhere ahead.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and the “Phoenix” of the Globalized Technological Capitalist System?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that three prominent intellectual figures spanning the 19th and 20th centuries forecasted the cataclysm of modernity. Thomas Carlyle, René Guénon, and Jacques Ellul provided reasoned accounts to justify their views that modernity is engulfed in a state of crisis on the basis that the not-mutually-exclusive hegemonies of technology, capitalism, and globalization are not invulnerable.
While each offered a slightly different viewpoint and a slightly different description of what they took to be the crisis, their views all coalesce around the general thesis that the continuous expansion of the material and technological built landscapes will eventually prove to be catastrophic. This is for two reasons. The first, because an ever-more complex system becomes ripe for error, an error which could cause the whole system to go haywire. Essentially, “the bigger it is the harder it falls.” The second reason is that in constructing an external environment as its hegemonic priority, humanity is neglecting giving attention to spirituality, philosophy, and developing the human inward nature. The external and material becomes the fog that humanity becomes ensconced in to such an extent that pursuing such things as the ascertainment of spiritual reality through intuition, the project Plato inaugurated academia with and inspired Christianity and Islam’s later development with, becomes wrested away wholesale from the consciousness of humanity. The two factors work in a type of synergy in that they mutually reinforce one another and precipitate cataclysm. The renunciation of the pursuit of constructing an ever vaster and more complex material system, which ostensibly implies a turn toward the spiritual as a premise, is the only means to stave off ever-greater cataclysms as the material system continuously grows more complex and more globalized.
Since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, technology, capitalism, and globalization have exerted their unquestioned domination only increasingly—until COVID-19. Technology, capitalism, and globalization have been unquestioned to such an extent that in hindsight it is obvious, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a global emergency of major proportions was necessary to even entertain the question that they were bound all along to eventually lead to a breakdown and inflict unprecedented harm to global health and the global economy. World War II was a destructive moment, but in no way did it impede the post-war expansions of technology, capitalism, and globalization in the latter-half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. The COVID-19 pandemic is dissimilar even to the catastrophe of World War II because of the magnitude and the nearly-universal geographic scope of the economic toll it has taken in such a short time. Moreover, while there was room for technology, globalization, and capitalism to both re-emerge and expand following World War II, their room for expansion from their forms immediately prior to the economic contraction COVID-19 exacted is likely to be minimal and is more likely to be non-existent or even negative. The contraction of the technological globalized capitalist system would inherently imply the beginning of a new post-globalization era.
What makes Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul interesting to entertain in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is the grand, global, and “esoteric” natures of their philosophies of modern history. It should be noted that the dominance of scientific rationality, mechanization, and materialist economy in the modern era itself was the lens through which enabled their philosophies to bereceived as radical and “esoteric,” or not based on empirical, positivist, scientific evidence. If their views had found a way to usurp the hegemonic position in the popular collective consciousness, they would not have been seen as radical or off-base.
Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is an 1836 fiction book that essentially inaugurated and epitomized modern social criticism toward the blind commitment to the Enlightenment and the resulting emergence of the non-spiritual materialistic basis of 19th century European politics, economy, and society. It was a chief inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and a foundational book for American Transcendentalism as an intellectual movement in general. In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle offers a cryptic diagnosis of the ailment of modernity during the midst of its advent, the Victorian industrial age.
Speaking through the voice of the book’s protagonist, Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle theorizes of a “phoenix” that can be forecasted to take place roughly sometime in the 21st century. Carlyle writes, “we are at this hour in a most critical condition; beleaguered by that boundless ‘Armament of Mechanisers’ and Unbelievers, threatening to strip us bare! ‘The World,’ says [Teufelsdröckh], ‘as it needs must, is under a process of devastation and waste, which, whether by silent assiduous corrosion, or open quicker combustion, as the case chances, will effectually enough annihilate the past Forms of Society; replace them with what it may.’” This is flowery language that communicates Carlyle’s view that the world is destined to be consumed and destroyed as a function of the domination of those who uninterruptedly pursue the “boundless” construction of the material economy single-mindedly as their highest/only priority in conjunction with those who are non-spiritual, the “Unbelievers.” The “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers” are synergistic and largely synonymous in that they are those who acknowledge only that which is material and perceptible by their senses.
To Carlyle, the “Armament of Mechanisers” and “Unbelievers,” by promoting the material economy, are inherently ignoring the spiritual realm, a realm that would be a moderator and reign in all-consuming materialism by embodying the virtue of renunciation (a virtue in nearly every theological and spiritual tradition). Humanity loses consciousness of the spiritual because modernity inherently divests the world of its spirit. Such a process is unsustainable because the finite nature of the world and its finite resources cannot sustain the pursuit of infinite material consumption and the increasing chaos that inherently manifests with a system that grows ever more complex. Thus, the materialist economy is bound to come into its full being, just like the mythic phoenix, before returning to ash and emerging in a different form. Carlyle reflects, “what time the Phoenix Death-Birth itself will require depends on unseen contingencies” and that it is a “handsome bargain would she engage to have [it] done ‘within two centuries.’”
René Guénon, a 20th century intellectual and metaphysician, offered what is perhaps the most sweeping and all-encompassing critique of the historical trajectory of Western civilization. He is also noteworthy in the contemporary sense as an inspiration for Steve Bannon, a chief political and policy adviser to President Donald Trump and a prominent promoter of traditionalist conservatism through such channels as Breitbart News Network. For Guénon, the West is in precipitous decline and he forecasted that it will reach a breaking point since the world is progressively displacing the realization of the quality of what he called the “Essence” of the transcendental realm (i.e. what lies beyond time and space and is perceived through the use of Platonic/spiritual intuition) with the realization of ever-greater quantity of the substance of what is material on Earth. Essentially, the progressive development of civilization corresponds to a cheapening of it and what he refers to as a “reign of quantity” rather than a reign of the quality of what can be nominally cast as the timeless Platonic Forms. Rather than conceiving of an ideal (i.e. a Platonic Form) through the use of intuition and then pursuing its realization in the Earthly material realm, everything modern defaults to gravitating around what Guénon takes to be the lowest-common-denominator, which is the measurement of everything by its quantitative rather than qualitative value. In other words, we are losing our ability to grasp and realize by intuition the ideal incarnation of all objects, concepts, and phenomena that are timeless and unchanging in the transcendent realm yet ephemeral in the material Earthly realm.
In The Crisis of the Modern World, published in 1927 shortly after World War I’s explicit embodiment of the rejection of the narrative of continual progress in modernity, Guénon reflects: “the belief in a never-ending ‘progress’, which until recently was held as a sort of inviolable and indisputable dogma, is no longer so widespread; there are those who perceive, though in a vague and confused manner , that the civilization of the West may not always go on developing in the same direction, but may some day reach a point where it will stop, or even be plunged in its entirety into some cataclysm.”
Guénon parallels Carlyle in Sartor Resartus in that he acknowledges the deeply problematic nature of cutting material existence on Earth off from any transcendent/spiritual/divine reality, a phenomenon which is only increasingly taking place in the context of modernity and not in previous ages. Devoid of any collective consciousness of transcendent reality that may prove effectual to moderating the continuous expansion of materialism and the “reign of quantity,” Guénon thinks modernity takes on a dimension antithetical to the transcendent and thus can be deemed “satanic” in the simplest nominal and non-theological use of the term. This narrative, Guénon maintains, explains the eventual dissolution of the modern world, as “the reign of quantity” will maximize the realization of quantity to its farthest limits, before triggering a cataclysmic contraction. According to Guénon in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, the “rectification” of modernity “presupposes arrival at the point at which the ‘descent’ is completely accomplished, where ‘the wheel stops turning.’” Guénon concludes that until such a breaking point is attained, “it is impossible that these things should be understood by men in general…”
Jacques Ellul, who was perhaps the foremost philosopher-critic of technology in the 20th century (and a chief inspiration for the Unabomber), largely reincarnated without citation Carlyle’s original criticisms of modernity. Ellul felt that modernity was synonymous with one vast global technical civilization that was autonomous and not subject to human control since its overall historical development as a system and long-term consequences are not subject to human control.Ellul defines what he takes to be technical civilization in his magnum opus The Technological Society, published in 1954: “technical civilization means that our civilization is constructed by technique (makes a part of civilization only what belongs to technique), for technique (in that everything in this civilization must serve a technical end), and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form).”
Ellul made known his theory that the technical civilization will have to perfect itself and sustain its perfection, as the only other alternative to perfection is the commission of an error, either small or large, that has the ability to cause the vast and interconnected system to go haywire. Ellul declares, “the technical society must perfect the ‘man-machine’ complex or risk total collapse.” For Ellul, technical civilization is a “Behemoth” and it can “rest easy” as nothing “will prevent him from consuming mankind.” Such an elucidation of the stakes involved in creating an ever-more complex and gigantic globalized and technological system are deeply relevant to the narrative of how COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global health and the global economy so quickly and so easily. Air travel and other forms of transportation infrastructure were technological developments that had reached a zenith at the time of the onset of the pandemic as a function of globalized capitalism also being at a zenith. The totality of the network of global transportation infrastructure manifested by technical civilization’s progressive global development since the Industrial Revolution was compounded by the growth in the levels of global travel on the part of the largest global population in history at the time of COVID-19’s onset.
Ellul denounces liberal political economy for providing the favorable climate necessary for the unquestioned manifestation of technical civilization and refutes prospective critics who would maintain that liberal economy and technical civilization are compatible for the long-term:
“It will doubtless be pointed out, by way of refutation, that production techniques were developed during the ascendancy of liberalism, which furnished a favorable climate for their development and understood perfectly how to use them. But this is no counterargument. The simple fact is that liberalism permitted the development of its executioner, exactly as in a healthy tissue a constituent cell may proliferate and give rise to a fatal cancer. The healthy body represented the necessary condition for the cancer. But there was no contradiction between the two. The same relation holds between technique and economic liberalism.”
Just as Carlyle documented what he took to be the crisis of modernity at its advent during the initial industrialism of 19th century Victorian England, Guénon documented in the context of retrospectively accounting for the catastrophes of both World Wars I and II, and Ellul documented in the context of the post-World War II exponential growth of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic provides another milestone with which to, at a minimum, revisit their mutually compatible theses with respect to the cataclysm of modernity. Whether COVID-19 proves to be the “big one” and arrests the hegemonic triumvirate of technology, capitalism, and globalization remains to be seen. At a minimum, what can be gleaned from Carlyle, Guénon, and Ellul is that modernity’s improvement of the material standard of living for so many globally needs to be balanced with a view toward moderation and long-term sustainability. Liberal political economy, science, and technological innovation have until now been single-minded seekers of continuous growth without acknowledging the need to at some point ossify or plateau the technical civilization they have each been instrumental in constructing so that it does not become a phoenix and burn to ash.
Iron Fist for Pacific East
“Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China. This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation.
However, for both countries this was far more than economy, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for a (global) penetration. In the meantime, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism –‘technological monoculture’ met the political one.
But now with a tidal wave of Covid-19, the honeymoon is over.” – recently diagnosed prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic on these very pages.
Following lines are a gross-detail insights into a mesmerising dynamic engulfing lately Far East and eastern Pacific.
Currently, China escalated its economic coercion against Australia by imposing two tariffs on the import of Australian barley. The first is a 73.6 % tariff on the agricultural product and the second, an additional 6.9 % arguing that the Australian government subsidies its farmers to grow this lucrative crop. Seen in tandem with the beef import ban on four Australian abattoirs, Beijing is pressuring Canberra hard to drop its calls for an independent COVID-19 (C-19) investigation and enforcing painful economic pain on Australia for what Beijing perceives as intolerable behaviour to a country that has “benefitted so profoundly” from trade with China.
These actions raise serious questions for Japan and its friends. How does Japan respond to such a clear demonstration of punitive economic coercion against one of Tokyo’s closest friends in the region? What about other interested parties? Do Canadian, American, and other agricultural exporters take advantage of Australia’s thorny relationship with Beijing as Brazil did in the midst of the US-China trade war by exporting soya beans and other agricultural products?
Looking at the short term, especially in the wake economic damaged caused by the C-19 pandemic taking, the logic of expediency to quickly deliver economic goods to the struggling agricultural industry is sensible.
In that scenario, those countries with amicable relations with China would fill the vacuum being created by economic coercion against Australia. The candidates include Brazil, Russia, amongst others.
In the mid to long term, this sends the wrong message to states that engage in economic coercion. The message being sent here is that countries that are vulnerable to punitive economic measures have little choice to relent to Chinese or others states demands as other states will not collectively stand up to blatant economic coercion.
One by one, what can be done?
Japan and other liberal democratic states cannot make up for the sheer volume of agricultural and other exports that the Chinese market consumes. Even if they could open their markets as a temporary alternative, there would still be a huge gap. Nevertheless, an agreement to buy goods from a targeted state may relieve some of the economic pressure being applied by coercive states.
Duanjie Chen of Canada’s MacDonald Laurier Institute correctly points out that Beijing practices economic coercion in a sophisticated and well-worn manner, by discreet to evade World Trade Organisation (WTO) disputes, precise calculation for maximum impact, and they are tailored to split western allies.
To lessen the effectiveness of these practices, Japan and other like-minded states need to mindful of these patterns and build multilateral mechanisms to create more resilience against punitive economic tactics.
In the first area, discreet to evade WTO disputes, Japan and other middle powers need to work collectively to close the WTO loop holes such that they cannot be exploit to deliver painful economic messages to states that are deemed to cross Beijing’s red lines.
To accomplish this task, WTO reform is crucial and that means collectively lobbying the US to work with allies to reform the WTO such that it functions better and can protect member states from economic predation.
If consensus cannot be achieved to reform the WTO, then like-minded states should consider a scrap and build approach that starts with like-minded countries but aims to achieve the same objectives.
The 2nd area Chen identified was the precise calculation for maximum impact. Japan felt this in 2010 with the rare-earth embargo, an embargo that hurt its high-tech firms and automobile industry. Australia is feeling this now with its beef and barley industries beings targeted. Canada felt similar measures against its canola, soya and pork industries in the wake of Ms Meng Wanzhou arrest. The tactics even included the hostage diplomacy of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who are still detained to this day.
Mitigating this hard-line approach requires a multilevel approach and multilateral cooperation. At the first level, like-minded states need to brainstorm and commit to collective and equal reciprocation of the economic coercion. For instance, collective stopping the export of a key or key ingredient, components or otherwise to China until the respective coercion stops.
Here agricultural products come to mind. The growing middle class in China also has a growing appetite for the high quality and safe agricultural from countries like Japan, Australia, Canada, the US, and the EU. These like-minded states should find ways to collectively limit their agricultural exports when one or more of its members are subject to economic coercion. China is vulnerable in other areas as well.
Reputational costs are also critical levers that should be collectively applied as well. Chen mentions withdrawing membership from the Asian Infrastructure and Investment bank (AIIB) as a possible measure. I would add MoUs signed with the BRI, and 3rd country infra-structure projects as well. These are crucial institutions that China has invested both treasure and political resources in to bolster its international credentials as a provider of global public goods.
Of Ban and Japan
Japan would play a key role here in that Beijing has assiduously courted Japan to join the BRI and 3rd country infrastructure as a way to build credibility for the BRI infrastructure projects. Without partners, China’s signature initiatives cannot be internationalized, and China will not recognized as a globally admired and responsible stakeholder.
Another key initiative to be collectively adopted by Japan and other countries in their trade negotiations with Beijing is a clause that expressly forbids economic coercion on Japan and or its allies. This kind of clause could be included in other trade agreements and negotiations that Beijing deems critical to its socio-economic development.
Thinking creatively, Japan and like-minded countries such as Canada, Australia, South Korea and others should think about ways to introduce their own “poison pill” into trade agreements. The US did this with he USMCA FTA between Canada, Mexico and the US by the inclusion of a clause in which the US had veto over Canada and Mexico’s other free trade partners, in particular if either entered a free trade deal with a with a “non-market country”, i.e. China.
In this hypothetic “poison pill” or let’s call it “Musketeer Clause”, trade agreements would include a clause that required partners to collectively respond to economic coercion of one of its members by applying diplomatic, economic and other pressure on the offending actor. This could be a collective boycott, collective lobbying in international organizations, collective reciprocal tariff increase, etc. In short, an embodiment of The Musketeers motto of One for all, all for one.
The third area that needs be addressed is the tactics deployed to tailored to split western allies. The above hypothetic clause would go far in doing that by creating as grouping of like-minded states that are interested in protecting their national and collective interests.
This will not be enough. With China being the largest trading partner of Japan, South Korea, Australia and many ASEAN states, an economic re-balancing must take place in which states collectively socially distance themselves from China. Here, the key that they are less dependent on bilateral relations for economic prosperity and more dependent on a balanced, multilateral trade relations with a collection of like-minded, rules-based countries and China.
Complete decoupling from China is not realistic considering the level of integration of our economies. It is also not in the economic or security interests of the states in questions nor the global community. What is in the interests of Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada and other middle powers and smaller powers is finding ways to buttress a rules-based international order and to push back against a track record of punitive economic policies.
Resistance is not futile. Victims of economic coercion need to channel their own Winston Churchill and epitomize the his views on never giving up in the face of force.
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Bangladesh’s Graduation: A Ray of Hope for India’s Garment Industry?
Authors: Ms. Prerana Manral and Mr. Shreyansh Singh*
A report was released by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 8th highlighting the implications of graduation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on their trade participation. By virtue of their status as LDCs, these countries enjoy access to international support measures such as development financing, preferential market access, technical assistance etc. WTO also obliges LDCs with certain carve outs such as Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) to increase their participation in global trade. The LDCs are graduated to developing country status if they meet the threshold levels for at least two of the three indicators i.e. Gross National Income (GNI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) for two consecutive triennial reviews. Interestingly, in 2018 Bangladesh became the first country to meet the thresholds for all the three indicators and if it meets these thresholds again for the second triennial review in 2021, it will be eligible for graduation in 2024.
In such a scenario, Bangladesh will lose some of the benefits provided to LDCs by developing and developed countries like the preferential market access which presently accords Bangladesh a competitive edge over Indian products. One of the key labor-intensive sectors which contributes significantly to the exports of both Bangladesh and India is garments industry. In 2009, both the countries almost had an equivalent share in the world market, however in 2018 India was left far behind Bangladesh. India’s total garment exports stood at 21 billion USD whereas Bangladesh’s exports were at 40 billion USD in 2018.
Bangladesh’s garment sector, due to its LDC status, currently enjoys a duty-free access to markets of Europe and other developed countries. Specifically in EU markets, goods from Bangladesh are covered under “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential arrangement which provides zero percent duty on all the products except arms and ammunition. On the other hand, India loses out due to 9% average tariff on garments under the Standard GSP scheme of EU. Further, under the SAFTA and APTA Agreements, India also provides similar duty-free market access to LDCs which along with the removal of quantitative restrictions has exponentially increased Bangladesh’s garments exports to India leading to a tough time for the domestic industry even in the internal market.
The major markets for India and Bangladesh garment exports are the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan. Trade estimates of garment products clearly show that India’s export in terms of value is significantly less than that of Bangladesh. Since 2010, India’s total share of exports grew by 9.4% whereas Bangladesh’s exports skyrocketed by 141% in these markets. The major reasons behind Bangladesh’s exemplary export performance are tariff exemptions and lower wage labor market which provides impetus to narrowly beat its competitors in the international market. The analysis done in the report reveals that 70% of Bangladesh’s overall export is covered under LDC-specific preferences.
At this juncture a possible graduation of Bangladesh will lead to termination of such preferential access granted exclusively to LDCs which may provide an opportunity for Indian exporters to grab a larger share. However, to maximize the gains arising from this development India needs to prepare a robust action-plan. Firstly, low cost inputs such as cheap power, land and raw materials will have far-reaching effects in enhancing the export competitiveness. Secondly, India should focus on mass scale production of garments in order to achieve economies of scale to bring down its cost of production. Presently, the production is limited majorly to small-scale enterprises which lack capital intensive technology. This in turn negatively affects the quality and time of production which are crucial factors in tapping the domestic and international markets. The improvement in these parameters would help Indian exporters to move up the value chain in terms of creating brand value for its superior quality products. Another overdue policy action could be cutting the import duties on high-quality machinery required for better production. In addition to this, a fiscal stimulus is required to boost the ecosystem in wake of Covid-19 pandemic.
Lastly, to offset the preferential access enjoyed by its competitors such as Vietnam, Bangladesh etc. India should identify its partners and strategically negotiate FTAs for lower tariffs and Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs) to obtain better market access for Indian exports. Needless to mention, India will only be able to reap the benefits arising from Bangladesh’s graduation (due in 2024) if it sows the right seeds today. Effectuating such policies especially at a time when corporate taxes are slashed to match that of India’s competitors along will definitely send a positive signal for investment in the sector from the top global garment companies.
*Authors are Research Fellows at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute for Foreign Trade. Views expressed are personal.
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