Singapore's free-trade deal with the European Union is a welcome affirmation of the larger virtues of a multilateral economic order. The key, and irreplaceable, advantage of a multilateral system is that it gives countries large and small roughly equitable access to the global economy. Protectionism and closed regionalism offer temporary benefits to some nations, but they do not compensate for the lost opportunities from which all countries could have benefited in the long term had they stayed the multilateral course. The Asia-Europe Meeting process is one way in which the EU and Asia can resist the siren calls of protectionism, whether those calls come from elsewhere or are voiced shrilly within.
Protectionism is the intrusion of domestic politics into what should and could be the impartial workings of the global economy. The tariff war that has broken out between the United States and China is not just a bilateral issue: it affects everyone else to varying degrees. It poses the threat of disruption to global value chains, in which far-flung nations contribute to the common production of goods and services to create the best price for the importing nation. By breaking those chains, tariff wars can be ominous portents of an imminent showdown among the stakeholders of an economic system.
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