At the start of the year, U.S.-China tensions were easing after their Phase I trade deal, while Washington, Brussels and Tokyo agreed on new global trading rules to curb subsidies. A relative calm had set in.
Then the new coronavirus struck.
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Countries across the world imposed 222 export curbs on medical supplies and medicines and in some cases food, according to Global Trade Alert, a Swiss monitoring group. For medical products, it was more than 20 times the usual level.
Those curbs are now being lifted, but the pandemic has reinforced protectionist arguments by highlighting how global supply chains can deprive people of essential medical protection and disrupt food supplies, as well as threaten jobs.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to cut ties with China, the European Union is planning barriers to state-backed investment from China and elsewhere and China is demanding declarations that food imports are virus-free.
Former EU trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom said there was a “worrying” tendency towards protectionism in the world and the re-emergence of trade conflicts briefly paused by the health crisis.
“Trade-wise we should be concerned,” she told a seminar on Wednesday.
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The World Trade Organization said on Tuesday that global trade in goods was set for a record fall this year and that wider restrictions could see a 2021 rebound falling short.
In the past fortnight, the United States has withdrawn from negotiations with European countries over a tax on digital firms and pledged a “broad reset” of its set of tariffs agreed with World Trade Organization partners.
It has also threatened tariffs on a new range of European products, including fresh olives, bakery items and gin, to maintain pressure in a 16-year dispute over aircraft subsidies.