Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 11:37 | SYDNEY
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Free Trade


There is strong evidence for a positive connection between freer trade and economic growth.  Australia’s removal of trade barriers during the 1980s has played a large role in its story of largely uninterrupted economic growth over the last 23 years. It follows that the openness of the global trading system is crucial not only to Australia’s long term economic outlook, but also the countries within our region. Access to global trade networks both for Australia and key emerging markets within the Indo-Pacific region are therefore both of major interest to the International Economy Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

However, post the global financial crisis, the rules that underpin the international trading system are in a period of flux. Despite the relative gains made from a multilateral trading system that centred around the World Trade Organization (WTO), the inability to conclude the Doha Development Agenda has seen a decline in enthusiasm for the active pursuit of trade agreements through the WTO. In particular, the single undertaking agreement in the WTO (i.e. nothing is agreed until everything is agreed) has led many countries to pursue bilateral and mega-regional agreements (such as the Australia-Japan FTA, and the Transpacific Partnership or TPP).

The emergence of mega-regional agreements like the TPP will have significant ramifications for the future of the global trading system. Like the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), the TPP will see a collection of major economies authoring new standards and rules for trade. This could detract from the multilateral underpinnings of the WTO and the truly global trading network that had begun to emerge since the WTO was established in 1995. That neither TPP or TTIP includes the poorest countries in the world, let alone China, raises further questions about the legitimacy, efficiency, and economic value of a shift away from true multilateralism.

What the Lowy Institute does

The Lowy Institute has approached current and future trends in the global trading system from several angles. In addition to the work on trade undertaken by the International Economy Program (, the G20 Studies Centre has produced several outlooks and perspectives on the role of free trade within global economic governance generally, and within the Group of Twenty process specifically ( This has involved investigations into initiatives of the G20 on freeing up trade, such as the post-GFC ‘standstill’ agreement that prevented a return to 1930’s-era trade protectionism that followed the Great Depression as well as how the G20 can value-add to establishing a more coherent global trading system, that ensures new initiatives such as the TPP and the TTIP make positive contributions to the future of international trade, rather than become vehicles for its disintegration.  This has become especially relevant after the conclusion of the Bali talks on trade facilitation, that represented the first agreement within the WTO, since its creation.

Free trade, and governance of the global trading system, will continue to be an on-going focus for the International Economy Program, as well as the G20 Studies Centre.

The G20 and the Future of International Economic Governance

The G20 has become a key international forum since it was set up in 1999. When Australia began its presidency of the 2014 summit in Brisbane, many commentators suggested that Australia’s chairing of the G20 would reinvigorate it. This timely book looks at what that meeting achieved and what has