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Thursday, March 23, 2017
In this column, Martin Khor, the executive director of the South Centre, warns that industrialised powers are taking aim against the role of the state in developing countries.
- Two new trade agreements involving the two economic giants, the United States and the European Union, are leading a charge against the role of the state in the economy of developing countries.
Attention should be paid to this initiative as it has serious repercussions on the future development plans and prospects of developing countries.
The two latest attempts towards this are through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). A new feature of both, as compared to other FTAs, will be discipline on the operations of state enterprises and a reduction of the state’s role in development.
The latter is a subject of long-standing discussion. The immediate post-colonial period saw a tendency towards a strong state, including government ownership of some key sectors, such as industry and banking.
Past decades witnessed a wave of privatisation across both rich and developing countries. But the state still owns or controls utilities, infrastructure, public services, banks and a few strategic industries in many developing countries.
Countries provide incentives for foreign companies, such as tax-free status. However, the state also offers special treatment to local companies, such as grants, cheaper-than-normal credit, subsidies, and government contracts.
The developmental role of the state in developing countries is now coming under attack from developed countries.
This is promoted by the big companies in the U.S., Europe and Japan, which seek to enter the markets of developing countries – the source of their future profits.
The support given by the state to domestic companies is seen by multinational companies as a hindrance to their quest for expanded market share in developing countries.
They are thus seeking to change the worldview and policy framework in developing countries, to get them to reduce the role of state enterprises as well as to curb the governments’ promotion of local private companies.
A sub-chapter on state-owned enterprises is a prominent part of the TPPA, which is being negotiated by the U.S. and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Japan has just joined too.
The U.S. and Australia are leading the move to have rules to discipline the role of the government in the economy, through a two-pronged approach.
First, to get government or other monopolies to behave in a “non-discriminatory” way, including when they buy or sell goods and services. For example, they are not allowed to give preferences or incentives to local firms.
Second, companies that are linked to the government (including through a minority share) should not get advantages vis-à-vis other firms in commercial activities. Of course, the developed countries that are proposing this are thinking of their companies -how they can get more access to developing countries’ markets.
In the TTIP, a U.S.-European Union agreement, negotiations for which started in July, the EU has prepared a sub-chapter on state-owned enterprises, with rules that seem quite similar to what the U.S. and Australia are proposing in the TPPA.
Although the TTIP only involves Europe and the U.S. directly, the rules it sets are intended to have consequences for other countries.
According to press reports, the two economic giants are planning for the rules they set in the TTIP to become the standard for future bilateral agreements that also include developing countries.
They also hope that these rules will eventually be internationalised in the World Trade Organisation, which has over 130 member states.
The EU position paper on state-owned enterprises says that its aim is to “create an ambitious and comprehensive standard to discipline state involvement and influence in private and public enterprises” and for this to “pave the way to other bilateral agreements to follow a similar approach and eventually contribute to a future multilateral engagement.”
In other words, the constraints on the role of the state, and the reduction of the space for behaviour or operations of state-linked companies, will become the way of the future for all countries, if the U.S. and European plans succeed.
These attempts to curb the role of the state in the economy are worthy of serious study and counter-action.
Developing countries that succeeded in economic development were able to combine the roles of the public and private sectors in a partnership that advanced overall national development.
Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and China, have pioneered this model of public sector collaboration with the private sector.
Those few developing countries that managed to get development going were all driven by the “developmental state”, or the leadership role of government in establishing the framework of economic strategy, and the collaboration between the state, state enterprises, and commercial companies.
Ironically, agricultural subsidies, the main trade-distorting practice of developed countries and regions like the U.S., Europe or Japan, have been kept off the agenda of the FTAs negotiated by the U.S. and EU with developing countries, including the TPPA.
The developed countries are clever not to include what would be more damaging to them. Thus the developing countries are deprived of what would have been the major trade gain for them.
Naturally, there are pros and cons to any agreement, including the FTAs. Any potential gain for a country in exports or investments should be weighed against potential losses to domestic producers and consumers, and especially the loss to the government in policy space and potential pay-outs to companies claiming compensation under the FTAs’ investment rules.
But if developing countries have to come under new international rules that curb the role of the state and that re-shape the structure of their economy, then the prospects for future development will be adversely affected.