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The long-predicted weaponisation of trade has, it seems, finally arrived. The US-China rivalry and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have politicised commerce to an extent not seen since the cold war. It’s not just that governments are increasingly blocking geopolitical rivals’ access to militarily sensitive technology. The big trading powers have also restricted exports of vital materials and tried to prevent adversaries selling their own commodities abroad.
But just because governments are keen on export curbs and trade sanctions doesn’t mean they work. Beijing’s imposition of controls on critical minerals, the US-led G7 club of rich countries’ sanctions on Russian oil, Russia’s own attempted coercion of western Europe by cutting off gas supply: all have caused alarm, but none has yet succeeded in crippling its target. Governments cannot muster enough control over global demand to choke off trade, supply chains are agile, sometimes illicitly so, and end users have found alternatives.
China caused much talk of weaponising commodities in July by restricting exports of gallium and germanium, two minerals used in chips and other high-tech applications, of which it produces most of the world’s supply. European manufacturers in particular were genuinely alarmed, but so far it turns out to be a less-than-devastating move. Prices jumped, but not to historically stratospheric levels. The two minerals are only a tiny part of manufacturers’ input costs — the US Geological Service says just $36mn worth of germanium was used in the US in 2021 — and can if necessary be made elsewhere. Perhaps mindful of this, China started lifting the curbs in late September.
Similarly Vladimir Putin last year failed to disable western European manufacturing and freeze its households into submission over Ukraine by restricting gas supply. Germany surprisingly swiftly switched to LNG and cut energy consumption. It has had an unpleasant energy shock, but not enough to bully Olaf Scholz’s government out of supporting Kyiv’s war effort. Putin’s ability to use energy for blackmail has been permanently weakened and indeed backfired: as a pipeline fuel, natural gas cannot easily be diverted elsewhere. Europe lost its main supplier, but Putin lost his best customer. You come at your monopsonist, you’d best not miss.
The G7’s and EU’s attempts to throttle Russia’s oil export revenues by imposing a $60 price cap a year ago were initially somewhat successful, pushing down the international price of Russian oil by $30-$40 a barrel. But as the Financial Times has reported, its effectiveness has diminished over time as Russia has developed a “dark fleet” of traders to evade controls. The Kyiv School of Economics reckons 99 per cent of seaborne Russian crude exports fetched above $60 a barrel in October, more than 70 per cent using non-G7 vessels and service providers.
The G7 and EU simply aren’t big enough parts of the global economy to strangle Russia’s oil sales. Middle-income countries have largely ignored Washington’s exhortation to adopt the price cap. Nor, contrary to hopes in Europe and the US, do the cap and other sanctions seem significantly to have damaged Putin’s standing among the Russian public.
Export controls contain the seeds of their own destruction just like producer cartels and attempts to interdict narcotics. Market mechanisms and highly motivated governments work to undermine them, particularly for generic commodities such as oil. Higher prices encourage smuggling and cheating and spur more supply and innovation. Beijing’s implied threat to cut off rare earths exports to Japan over a diplomatic dispute in the early 2010s — though it’s not clear it actually did — initially pushed up prices, but was undermined by smuggling out of China and mines opened elsewhere.
Export controls encourage rival research and development in specialised proprietary technology as well as commodities. The current shortages of lithium for electric batteries have stimulated progress in creating sodium ion technology. In August, the Chinese telecoms company Huawei surprised and dismayed the US by releasing a mobile phone model using advanced chips it apparently developed domestically despite American tech sanctions. (Some of the smarter trade-watchers predicted this might happen.)
Governments might have learnt from history that trade restrictions often only partially work, and frequently fail to turn public opinion against the sanctioned regime. The US trade embargo since 1962 on Cuba has undoubtedly damaged Cuba’s growth, but has also provided the Communist regime with a ready-made excuse for persistent economic underperformance. The controls on Iraqi oil exports after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait did not end his grip on the country. Sanctions on apartheid South Africa may have had some effect in precipitating the financial crisis that began the end of that evil regime, but the evidence is ambiguous.
Now, this is not to say that all export restrictions are pointless. Blocks on defence technology exports to Russia have undoubtedly hampered its military capability, and US control of the global dollar payments system is a powerful tool. But attempts to govern the supply of commodities are battling against a fractured geopolitical landscape where many middle-income countries are happy to trade with anyone, and supply-chain operatives are sinuous and secretive enough to evade controls. Governments are certainly trying to weaponise global trade, but their ordnance has so far inflicted few fatal wounds.
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