China’s International Import Expo Launches, With Cooperation and Open Markets in Focus

8 November 2018

China kicked off its inaugural International Import Expo (CIIE) this week in Shanghai, bringing together a host of participants from around the world from 5-10 November to discuss the current and future landscape of trade and investment. 

The six-day event, the first of its kind to focus solely on imports, brought together thousands of governmental representatives, business leaders, and top officials from international organisations, and also featured speeches from the heads of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank Group (WBG), and World Trade Organization (WTO). 

The CIIE has been over a year in the making, announced in spring 2017 during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China. In parallel, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with the heads of the World Bank, IMF, WTO, International Labour Organization (ILO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Financial Stability Board for the “1+6” Roundtable in Beijing. That meeting was devoted to discussing China’s role in the future economy and the current status of global trade. 

Trade, Chinese policy reforms in the spotlight

Given the continued trade tensions among major economies, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted in his opening remarks the importance of having gatherings where stakeholders can weigh in on potential opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

“[The import expo] is a major policy for China to push for a new round of high-level opening-up and a major measure for China to take the initiative to open its market to the world,” he stated. “All countries should be committed to opening up and oppose protectionism and unilateralism in a clear-cut stand,” he said, warning against countries adopting a “law of the jungle” approach. 

Regarding concrete policy measures from Beijing, Xi pledged that China would move to reduce import tariffs, improve investment market access, and take steps to open China’s services sectors further, among other actions.

WTO Director-General Robert Azevêdo spoke of the importance of compromise and collaboration in international trade during his remarks at the opening ceremony, including in efforts to shore up the international trade system and make it better suited for current and future needs.

"We must work together now to strengthen those foundations” that institutions such as the WTO have established, he said, noting that these same foundations already facilitated “greater openness and economic integration.”

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde applauded China’s own reform efforts over the past four decades, while also noting that the current tensions in the international trade arena could dampen growth and weaken important systems.

"On behalf of the IMF, I have called on all countries to de-escalate and resolve the current trade disputes and to fix the global trade system, not destroy it. To achieve these goals, we need more international cooperation, not less – and that goes well beyond economics," she stated during the opening ceremony, according to a transcript released by her office.

The import expo also drew the participation of a host of national leaders, many of whom used the event as an opportunity to call for greater trade cooperation as well as noting the value of continued market opening from Beijing. For example, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaité reiterated the importance of economic liberalisation during her remarks at the CIIE’s Trade and Investment Forum, naming China’s own recent history as an example worth examining and building upon.

According to a Lithuania government press release, she called on Beijing to pursue additional reforms, including allowing foreign companies better market access for bidding for government contracts, and taking further measures to protect intellectual property rights.

Some trade experts from other world regions also welcomed the import expo as an opportunity to showcase domestic markets in the hopes of making greater inroads into China, as well as Asia more broadly – a sentiment expressed by Lubinda Haabazoka, President of the Economics Association of Zambia, in comments to Xinhua.

"We are not only going to see China exporting finished products to Africa, Africa will start exporting both raw and finished products to China and that is a win-win situation that we would want to see," Haabazoka said.

Also on the margins of the CIIE, China and Singapore wrapped up talks to modernise their free trade agreement (CSFTA), following a meeting of ministers earlier this week. The planned changes include lower tariffs, as well as chapters devoted to subjects such as the environment, services, and electronic commerce.

1+6 Roundtable: Fears persist over trade tensions, protectionism

Concurrently, the “1+6” Roundtable that met in Beijing this week culminated in a joint press statement from participants, who expressed their fears over the uncertain nature of today’s trade climate and the “downside” risks that the global economy faces. The press release also referred to other topics of shared interest, including the achievement of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“We call on all parties to jointly uphold multilateralism, support free trade, support the positive role of multilateral institutions in global economic governance, support a rules-based, open, transparent, inclusive, and non-discriminatory multilateral trading system, work together to build an open world economy, and foster sound development of globalisation,” leaders said.

They also referred to the continued strain the WTO’s dispute settlement system is facing, given the vacancies on its Appellate Body. The selection processes for putting new judges on the global trade court has been stalled, with the US repeatedly blocking these from moving ahead, citing various concerns over how the court operates in practice.

On China specifically, the statement welcomes both the import expo as well as “China’s efforts to promote a new round of high-standard opening up to the outside world.”

ICTSD reporting; “China Opens First Import Expo With Veiled Warning to Trump,” THE DIPLOMAT, 6 November 2018; “Singapore, China conclude talks to upgrade free trade agreement,” CHANNEL NEWS ASIA, 5 November 2018; “Full Text: Joint Press Release of the Third "1+6" Roundtable,” XINHUA, 6 November 2018; “China's import expo a door way to global trade: Zambian experts,” XINHUA, 6 November 2018; “Xinhua Headlines: China's import expo opens, Xi urges building an open world economy,” XINHUA, 5 November 2018; “China’s Xi Jinping hits out at ‘law of the jungle’ trade policies,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 5 November 2018.

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