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Deglobalization’s China Wild Card

With the world beset by climate change, pandemics, and a shocking new war in Europe – to say nothing of mounting inequality and related social and political tensions – globalization’s defenses are in tatters. And China may well have the most to lose.

NEW HAVEN – The widely acclaimed globalization of the post-Cold War era is now running in reverse. A protracted slowdown in global trade has been reinforced by persistent pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions, ongoing pressures of the US-China trade war, and efforts to align cross-border economic ties with geostrategic alliances (“friend-shoring”). These developments tighten the noose on China, arguably the country that has been the greatest beneficiary of modern globalization.

Of the many metrics of globalization, including financial, information, and labor flows, the cross-border exchange of goods and services is most closely tied to economic growth. Largely for that reason, the slowdown in global trade, which commenced in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis and intensified in the COVID-19 era, points to a sea change in globalization. While global exports went from 19% of world GDP in 1990 to a peak of 31% in 2008, in the thirteen years that followed (2009-21), global exports have averaged just 28.7% of world GDP. Had world exports expanded on a 6.4% trajectory – halfway between the blistering 9.4% pace of 1990-2008 and the subdued post-2008 rate of 3.3% – the export share of global GDP would have soared to 46% by 2021, far above the actual share of 29%.

China’s gains from the globalization of trade have been extraordinary. In the decade prior to China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization, Chinese exports averaged just 2% of total world exports. By 2008, that share had risen nearly fourfold, to 7.5%. China had timed its WTO membership bid perfectly, just when the global trade cycle was on a major upswing. While the financial crisis took a brief toll on Chinese export momentum, the interruption was short-lived. By 2021, Chinese exports had surged to 12.7% of world exports, well above the pre-2008 peak.

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