The liberalization of world trade continues, despite economic crises, protectionist pressures, and the entanglement of conflicting dynamics between numerous actors (MNF, SME, Southern or Northern states, WTO, NGO, etc.).

The value of global exports of merchandise grew by 32% over 10 years to reach US$ 16 trillion in 2016; exports of commercial services grew by 64% to US$ 4.77 trillion. Among the merchandise categories, manufactured goods and agricultural products in particular saw strong growth (increasing by 37% and 67% respectively) while exports of fuels and mining products decreased by 10% in value terms due to falling oil prices.

World trade in goods and services, 2006-2016

Source: World Trade Organization (WTO),

Comment: According to WTO statistics, world trade in goods has substantially increased since 2006, despite the curve’s considerable unevenness (impact of the 2008 crisis, slowdown since 2014). The upper curves show the change in volume, expressed in dollars: in 2016, the trade in goods appears to be three times greater than the trade in services. The lower curves, with base 100 (100 = the value in 2006), show more of the development over time, and trade in services appears to have risen more than trade in goods.

Actors of selective globalization

Highly comprehensive databases (UN/ COMTRADE and WTO) make it possible to track trends in world trade but do not fully reflect the complexity of regional and bilateral trade agreements. The practice of recording trade flows at borders is inadequate and obsolete, the ‘country of origin’ concept reflects neither industry value chains nor inter-company trading, and some actors still remain poorly understood (SMEs, e-commerce, etc.).

Trade in goods, 2016

Source: World Trade Organization (WTO),

Comment: The WTO data used for this map have been incorporated into large regions, producing an image that is simple and easy to read but which masks significant imbalances (for example, China represents 76% of all Asian exports) and repeats concepts which should be qualified (the Northern “triad” where most trade is said to be concentrated). The arrows showing the direction of interregional trade reveal confusions, a hierarchy and, often, an imbalance between exports and imports (between Asia and North America for example). The circles showing intra-regional trade show the transactions between states within a zone; they should be taken with caution, because they partly depend on numbers of states or level of economic integration, hence the high figure for Europe.

The end of protectionist import substitution policies and the opening-up of trade facilitated the emergence of major players from the Global South. Having joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2001, China is now playing a major role, both through its relationships with the two other main hubs of world trade, the US and Europe (the three together accounting for 44% of global exports and 45% of global imports in 2016) and in South-South trade.

Even though changing technologies are playing an key role in declining manufacturing jobs, trade liberalization is often identified as the main cause of deindustrialization in the countries of the Global North. The remedies proposed by some, populist parties in particular, are a return to protectionism by increasing tariff barriers to imports (such as the taxes of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum introduced in the US in March 2018, measures against the Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba, etc.) and renegotiating regional agreements concluded via the WTO.

Although small and medium-sized companies account for a significant proportion of employment worldwide, their contribution to GDP is lower than that of major companies (due to lower productivity) and their share of trade is just one-third of the total even though they represent three-quarters of exporters by number. These companies face multiple obstacles in the marketplace: lower economies of scale on fixed costs, cumbersome customs formalities, lack of information, difficulties accessing financing and inadequate public policy support. Electronic commerce is an opportunity the WTO, the UN, the European Union and the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) are trying to measure more effectively – one that is primarily benefiting the newly-established, flexible SMEs created in the era of accelerated globalization.

Global infrastructures

All world trade actors are benefiting from more efficient goods transportation flows. Since the 1950s, standardized containers and the installation of cargo handling systems and dedicated wharves in ports have helped to cut costs and transform the global geography of trade. For Asia and for the South more generally, the network of shipping routes and the infrastructure of the major ports (some of which are major trade hubs) are tools furthering their integration within the global economy (as well as being productive investments for companies of the North). Activities related to the shipping industry are concentrated in the hands of powerful shipowners and terminal operators; Asian companies are playing an increasingly important role in this sector.

The top 100 container ports in the world, 2016

Source: Lloyd’s List , “Top 100 por ts 2017”,

Comment: Lloyd’s List is the main historical actor in the insurance and reinsurance market. It analyses maritime trade activities, including freight ports. These infrastructures are mainly based on containers and constitute the tool for integration in the global economy. Their geographical distribution reveals a succession of ports stretching along the shipping routes connecting Asia, Europe, and North America. The largest ports – in terms of traffic – are concentrated in Eastern Asia, where 12 out of the 15 top ports are located (8 of them in China), whereas Rotterdam, which for a long time was the world’s largest port, now only occupies 12th position.

More recently, the growth of the internet and of the number of people using it has driven the expansion of e-commerce, dominated by two highly dynamic global operations, Amazon (United States) and Alibaba (China), which together had more than 750 million customers in 2016. Yet the two companies are based on very different models: while Amazon holds stock in its warehouses, selling and dispatching by means of powerful infrastructure and a large global workforce (300,000 employees in 2016), the Chinese platform is merely an intermediary between millions of sellers and hundreds of millions of customers.

The challenge of multilateral regulation

GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, was established in 1947, promoting free trade as a force for peace. When the United States failed to ratify the Havana Charter, however, the agreement over many years became a mechanism for undertaking multilateral negotiations outside the UN, encompassing ever more countries, products and subjects. This produced a multitude of partial agreements – leading, in 1994, to the Marrakesh Agreement, which created the World Trade Organization, a permanent organization for supporting and regulating international trade, including a Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) that can impose sanctions (between 1995 and 2016 more than 500 disputes were submitted to the DSB). WTO agreements (covering goods, services and intellectual property) formalize the principle of trade liberalization (and its exceptions); member countries commit to lowering barriers to trade in a transparent way and to settling their disputes, while special provisions and progressive measures can be put in place for developing countries. In 1999, the launch of a new round of negotiations in Seattle faced disagreements between the European Union and the United States, objections from countries of the South regarding the event’s scope and coverage, and disruption caused by alter-globalist protestors. Between 1996 and 2017, 11 Ministerial Conferences were held, reconciling the motivations of states with divergent interests and very unequal negotiation capabilities (highly specialized officials and legal teams) with those of competing multinational corporations backed by powerful lobbies. The Doha Round, which began in late 2001, comprises 20 areas of negotiation. In 2018 it was still in a state of impasse – evidence, in itself, of the challenges involved in regulating world trade.

Disputes at the World Trade Organization, 1995-2018

Source: World Trade Organization (WTO),

Comment: The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) has power of sanction when arbitrating in trade disputes between member states. The grid shows that the two commercial giants formed by the United States and the European Union (EU, which sits in its own right and on behalf of its member states) are the focus of most complaints, whether they are themselves complainants or are the subject of complaints; against one another or against many other countries, some of them emerging, with China in the lead. In 2001 China became the 143rd member state of the WTO, but has only complained against the United States and the EU.

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