We're in the midst of important structural shifts, says former World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Tim McCready reports.

"China has had enormous progress over 40 years. It has had the most historic reduction of poverty in humankind," says former World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

Zoellick, who led the World Bank through the global financial crisis and served as a US trade representative under President George W. Bush, points out that while Asian growth rates have been healthy, they have not been able to return to the levels they had before the 2008 financial crisis.

At the recent Asian Financial Forum he sent a message that the Asian growth model that was so successful for many decades would need to change.

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Zoellick says Asian economic policymakers have traditionally had a longer time-horizon.

"The old model began by relying on manufacturing at the low end of supply chains. It then integrated upward — adding efficiencies, learning, productivity — but relied on the assistance of exports to developed economies.

"I think that perspective is especially valuable today because we're in the midst of some very important structural shifts."

Though Asia has accounted for two-thirds of global growth in recent years, markets are nervous as major shifts are taking place: the end of the quantitative easing experiment and transition to a tightening cycle, slower growth in real trade over the past decade compared to the 20 years before the financial crisis, productivity increases in Asia, and the ongoing trade dispute between China and the US.

"Trade policies and rising economic nationalism around the world have disrupted commerce and created a great deal of uncertainty," says Zoellick.

"Traditionally, governments put tariffs on final goods, but from 2010 to 2016 they focused on temporary trade barriers, targeting cross-border supply chains for raw materials and components."

But while President Donald Trump's hefty tariffs may have been intended to help US manufacturers by making foreign goods comparatively more expensive, in reality, import taxes imposed on intermediate goods like steel and aluminium are pushing up prices of products manufactured in the US.

Belt and Road part of a new era

Zoellick says Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all offer cautionary tales — a bias towards incumbency and incrementalisation has slowed the innovation process — and a rapidly ageing population and lower population growth are changing the dynamics. "We can see some of those trends in China today as well.

"One of the main challenges is: will Asia grow old, before it grows rich and wealthy?" he asks.

He says the new Asian model will need to focus on new and different types of supply chains, to meet the changing needs — first off — of the region itself.

He points to the Greater Bay Area as an example of how this transformation has already started in Hong Kong and China.

The Greater Bay initiative, established by the Chinese Government, links Hong Kong, Macau, and nine other cities within the Guangdong Province into an integrated economic and business cluster.

The 11 cities have a combined population of close to 68 million people — greater than the world's largest city cluster of 44 million in Tokyo — and a GDP of around US$1.4 trillion (NZ$2.06 trillion).

The 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge-tunnel system which opened last year cut the drive time between the cities from up to three hours, down to just 30 minutes.

Zoellick sees the Greater Bay Area as a huge opportunity, but says the challenge for Hong Kong will be not only the hard infrastructure — railways, bridges, roads — but some of the soft connectivity to move capital, information, and people.

"Policies will have to focus on new cross-border logistics networks and the barriers that impede them, such as new infrastructure to facilitate trade, services, environmental conditions, energy access, standards, rules and a whole series of soft infrastructure issues, such as customs and tax procedures," he says.

Zoellick says China's Belt and Road Initiative could be an important part of the new Asian model — if it is correctly developed.

"Frankly, the world is still unclear about the real purpose of Belt and Road. Is it a move for geopolitical dominance across Asia?

"Is it a plan to export overproduction from some of the materials industries in China? Or is it a new corridor for development? How will other countries benefit?"

He says although it is important to focus on the new regional opportunities and obstacles of the Belt and Road Initiative, Asia must stay global in outlook. "For example, even with President Trump's protectionism, consider the US economy.

"The private sector will continue to be the engine for innovation in the United States — whether it is big data, different business models, or biologics in medicines — Asia must keep linked into that to remain competitive and adaptive."

A trade leadership vacuum

Zoellick says another important factor shaping trade in Asia is the way President Trump has seen the US abandon its previous role as a key player developing new rules for global trade.

"After some 70 years of a US-led system, I suspect that much of the world has taken the public good aspect for granted," he says.

"People sometimes reacted against US behaviour and didn't always agree with it, but because the United States is an innovative economy working at the cutting edge, US officials had to press for new norms and rules to help adapt the international system — in areas such as services, intellectual property rights, transparency, anti-corruption, investment, and even currency manipulation.

"When you consider developments in big data, along with things like personal sensors and innovation in medicines, they can have huge effects on health and are significant business opportunities — but only if the world develops the appropriate legal framework.

"Traditionally, the World Trade Organisation could help do this. But today the WTO is adrift.

"It will not be able to negotiate new rules unless the United States, European Union, China and others can reinvigorate the WTO."

Zoellick says China might offer an alternative system, but if they do, the world is more likely to end up with a managed trade system.

"The big powers will emphasise national champions, political priorities and sovereign protections over a rule of law framework in which markets will operate relatively freely," he says.

"That has very large implications for the small and medium-sized economies that have benefited enormously from a rules-based system over past decades."

The ongoing trade war

Zoellick says that for the near term, he expects to see friction, accusations, and negotiations between China and the US become a fact of life and add to ongoing uncertainty.

But some of the tensions between the two economic giants go beyond Trump and are concerns held across the American political spectrum and among voters.

"A transactional deal would not address the fundamental issues which are causing widespread concern in the United States — including questions about the Belt and Road Initiative and the 'Made in China 2025' strategy, which has created anxiety that China intends to dominate advanced technology.

"These concerns are part of the political debate in the US," he says. "The US cannot decouple from or contain China, but it can work together with China to make sure the rules are followed."

Zoellick says that although Trump is a protectionist by nature, he will be sensitive to the market.

As he begins to think about his re-election — and particularly if the US economy slows down — he is more likely to do a deal.

"However, if there is a deal, I think we have to recognise that it is more likely to be a truce than a solution," Zoellick says. "Part of my concern is that I'm not sure President Trump thinks in systemic terms. He thinks in deal-making transactional terms."