China will be deglobalisation’s big loser

Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine has accelerated the division of the world into two blocs, one comprising the world’s democracies, and the other its autocracies. This, in turn, has exposed the risks inherent in economic interdependence among countries with clashing ideologies and security interests. And although the coming deglobalisation process will leave everyone worse off, China stands to lose the most.

China was headed toward at least a partial decoupling with the United States well before Russia invaded Ukraine. It has been seeking to ensure that this process happens on its terms, by reducing its dependence on US markets and technology. To that end, in 2020 China unveiled its so-called dual-circulation strategy, which aims to foster domestic demand and technological self-sufficiency.

And yet, last year, China was still the world’s largest exporter, shipping $3.3-trillion in goods to the rest of the world, with the US its leading export market. Overall trade with the US grew by more than 20% in 2021. Trade with the European Union also grew, reaching $828-billion, even as disagreements over human rights torpedoed a contentious EU-China investment agreement.

That agreement had been born of the belief that Europe would maintain strategic neutrality in the Sino-American cold war, to reap the economic benefits of engagement with China. But if human rights concerns were enough to convince the European Parliament not to ratify the deal, Russia’s war against Ukraine — which China has tacitly supported, and which has pushed the US and the EU closer together — seems likely to drive the EU toward a broader economic decoupling from China.

One cannot blame Western democracies or their autocratic adversaries for prioritising security over economic welfare. But they must brace for the economic repercussions. And a middle-income autocracy such as China will bear a far larger cost than rich democracies like the US and its European allies.

For starters, China will suffer from reduced access to major Western markets. In 2021, Chinese merchandise exports to the US, the EU, and Japan — accounting for 38% of total exports — amounted to nearly $1.3-trillion. If China’s access to these three markets is halved over the next decade — a likely scenario — the country will need other markets to absorb roughly 20% of its exports, worth some $600-billion (based on 2021 trade data).

Here, China appears to have no good options. China’s dual-circulation strategy indicates that not even its leaders expect other external markets to pick up the slack left by the US and its allies. But China’s apparent belief that domestic demand can offset this loss also seems far-fetched.

High debt, rapid population ageing and an imploding real-estate sector will continue to hamper GDP growth, while sharp income inequality, soaring housing costs and weak social protections will constrain consumer demand. The closure of factories producing goods for export, and the associated job losses, will exacerbate these problems. A significant share of China’s infrastructure — especially energy and transportation networks — will be underused or even become redundant.

Aside from facing shrinking export markets, China will lose access to the technologies it needs to build a knowledge economy. US sanctions have already crippled telecoms giant Huawei and prevented SMIC, a semiconductor manufacturer, from getting its hands on the most advanced technologies. If the US persuades the EU and Japan to revive the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) to choke off technology flows to China — a prospect made more likely by the Ukraine war — China will have little chance of winning the technology race with the US.

The third key cost of deglobalisation for China is harder to measure, but it may well turn out to be the highest: the loss of efficiency gains from dynamic competition. Products made and sold in China are of a far higher quality today than they were two decades ago, largely because Chinese companies must compete with their Western rivals. But if they are insulated from such pressure, they will not face pressure to produce higher-quality products at lower cost. This will hamper innovation and hurt consumers.

All these costs might be bearable if economic decoupling actually made China more secure. And, at first, it might seem to be doing just that, with China reducing its vulnerability to the kinds of economic and financial weapons that the West has deployed against Russia. But as China’s economic might declines, so will its position on the global stage — and the Communist Party’s status at home.

Seven decades ago, Mao Zedong embraced economic self-reliance and foreign-policy militancy, which turned China into an impoverished pariah state. This history should be a stark warning to President Xi Jinping: if he allows Russia, China’s “no limits” strategic partner, to divide the world with its war on Ukraine, it is China that will pay the heaviest price. — © Project Syndicat

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Minxin Pei
Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Since the Ukraine war sent global cereal prices soaring, import-dependent Tunisia has announced a push to grow all its own durum wheat, the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta.

Democracy under serious and sustained attack from within the US

Far-right Republicans and the conservative supreme court are working on a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime

Grilling for UK leader Boris Johnson after top ministers quit

The prime minister has faced lawmakers' questions after two of the most senior figures in his government resigned. The finance and health ministers said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal

Declare an ‘energy emergency’, says National Planning Commission

The commission said the goals of the National Development Plan, which it is charged with advancing, ‘cannot be achieved without energy security’

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…