Hello from Brussels, and welcome to the first edition of the new and improved Trade Secrets.

We’re still feeling the reverberations from the US’s announcement last week supporting, in principle, a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization. The EU’s incredibly indignant that it’s been outspun and made to look like the bad guy, and is letting everyone know about it. The problem is that, being the EU, it’s unable to convey a quite simple and entirely reasonable message — it’s fine to talk about patents, but tech transfer and exports are the main thing — without a bit of a cacophony and strange references to Anglo-Saxons.

The babble managed to overshadow some quite big news at the EU-India summit over the weekend. As the Financial Times predicted last week, Brussels and Delhi launched (or technically renewed) talks on a trade deal, plus ambitious notions about co-operating on digital connectivity, geopolitics and so on, plus an investment treaty of the kind that’s gone down so well since the EU signed it with China. Speaking of which, today’s main piece is on the EU’s determined campaign to create legal tools to take on Chinese trade distortions, complicated by the fact that the problem keeps changing shape.

Charted Waters takes a look at trade flows over the past decade.

There’s been a finely tuned humming heard around Brussels over the past few years, like a high-performance engine being run at speed. It’s the legal brains of the European Commission designing new “autonomous” (unilateral) tools to counter what the EU regards as the unfair trade and investment distortions produced by Chinese state capitalism. (They don’t say China, but that’s what they mean.)

Whether you support the campaign’s underlying philosophy — free-traders are sceptical about it — the process is impressive to watch. Frankly, we wouldn’t want the lawyers of the trade and competition directorates after us. The latest contrivance was wheeled out of the hangar last week, in the form of a subsidies instrument to be used against state-supported foreign companies operating in the EU.

Assuming it gets adopted, and depending on how it’s used, it’s a big deal, bringing competition tools to bear on international trade. Essentially, it extends the reach of the EU’s state aid regime abroad where foreign handouts distort the European market. It can be applied to market competition, mergers and acquisitions, and public procurement.

The anti-subsidy tool is the latest in the following list of China-unfriendly initiatives implemented or proposed by the EU over the past five or so years. If you’re taking notes: sharpening up trade defence instruments (anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties); allowing those duties to be used against companies subsidised by the Chinese government but exporting from another country; tightening up screening of inward foreign direct investment (FDI) for national security reasons; developing an anti-coercion tool (aimed more at Donald Trump’s administration, to be fair) to use against foreign governments acting illegally; producing a toolbox for member states to manage risky entities (Huawei) from 5G networks; banning imports made with forced labour; and requiring European companies to exercise “due diligence” in eliminating labour and environmental abuses from their supply chains. Quite a list.

You have to admire the commission’s stamina and ingenuity, finding ways to tackle one alleged distortion after the other. You’d also think that, what with China and the EU becoming ever closer trading partners, Brussels’ stance would somewhat rattle Beijing. But it’s hard to conclude that the EU’s tools, along with a bunch of similar actions by the US and other countries, have pushed the Chinese growth model towards a market economy. In fact, President Xi Jinping’s going the other way, with a “dual circulation” growth strategy, one of the aims of which is to use heavy government intervention to build up high-tech capacity in China in an insulated domestic market.

Why? Well, some of the explanations are political. These tools are housed in the commission, but some require EU member state acquiescence to create and/or use. Powers over national security FDI and 5G screening, for example, reside at national level: China can pick off individual countries with carrots and sticks.

Some explanations are institutional. The ability to use anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties against Chinese companies based in third countries has been tried just a few times (glass fibre fabric and reinforcements from Egypt and steel from Indonesia and India) and only partially succeeded. Antidumping lawyers grumble that the commission makes it too hard to bring new cases.

Some are practical. The subsidy instrument will involve complex investigations, trying to apply existing EU state aid disciplines to the myriad opaque ways that China hands out money to its companies. The thresholds for action also have to be set high enough not to deter benign investments, especially since a foreign business attempting to acquire a company in the EU may also have to file separate national FDI notifications.

But one of the hardest issues is that the creation of the instruments generally lags behind the evolution of the Chinese trade and growth model by a few years. While Europe’s trade defence tools were being strengthened against exports from China, Beijing was instead building industrial capacity abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative. Then, just as the EU started to apply those duties against Chinese companies outside China, Beijing was rethinking the Belt and Road Initiative and reducing its foreign exposure. The subsidy tool arrives several years after Chinese FDI into the EU started falling and many European governments became disenchanted with China. You can very plausibly argue the EU now needs more rather than less Chinese FDI.

As the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment shows, China is less interested in getting market access in the EU than securing European inward investment in intellectual property-intensive sectors such as electric vehicles, and we can guess what for. The agreement has provisions to prevent forced technology transfer, and the EU has brought cases on the issue at the WTO, but winning dispute settlement cases rather than wielding a unilateral tool is a slow and uncertain business.

This isn’t a counsel of despair: there are still plenty of Chinese exports and investment in the EU that can be regulated, assuming that’s a good idea. But the EU’s critiques of the latest phase of Chinese development — dominating advanced markets through huge government support and weaponising trade for geopolitical ends — will be even harder to address than the previous ones. And that’s before we get to the question of human rights.

We’ll take a deeper look at the EU’s anti-subsidy initiative in future newsletters: there’s a lot to examine. For now, we’ll just say that there’s been a lot of painstaking legal engineering going on, but the devices that result are already looking a little dated.

This is about as big a picture on global trade as you can get. The data, from the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, track trade flows over the past ten years and show two things.

Line chart of 2010=100 showing World trade has recovered from the pandemic, but not Trump

First, the good news (for those of you who are fans of globalisation at least). The recovery from the early months of the pandemic has been remarkable, with flows now at their pre-Covid mark.

This is a point that we don’t think is made often enough. While semiconductor chip shortages and high shipping costs often make headlines (including, we confess, in Trade Secrets), global manufacturing and logistics should be given an awful lot of credit for ensuring that the rebound seen over the past three quarters has been so strong.

The bad news is that broader geopolitical tensions were clearly affecting flows in the run-up to the pandemic. We don’t see those tensions dissipating soon, so expect growth to stutter even if we manage to get Covid under control. Claire Jones

Welcome to our new Trade Links section, a round-up of the best content we’ve come across over the past few days.

Today’s must-read comes from the European Centre for International Political Economy and covers the trade implications of the radical shift in technology turning manufacturing giants, such as Volkswagen, into software developers. It’s well written and has some great charts that help support the case that, when it comes to trade and technology, the future is now.

We’d highly recommend this FT piece, which takes an in-depth look at why the Serum Institute of India, the world’s top vaccine maker, is struggling. One of the reasons being that it’s at the sharp end of the vaccine trade wars. Also worth a look is this Big Read from Andrew Hill, explaining why the UK’s services sector is taking a big hit from Brexit. This is a massive deal. And — as Lionel Barber, formerly of this parish, notes — it is a story too few are talking about given that services makes up a whopping 80 per cent of UK output. Expect this to change, and the services sector’s woes to rise in prominence, as economies on both sides of the Channel begin to reopen.

This morning’s edition of the FT’s excellent Europe Express newsletter focuses on the transatlantic spat over the vaccine waiver, which Mehreen Khan concludes will do little to help poorer countries in desperate need of more jabs. For those of you interested in European policy and politics beyond trade, sign up here for a daily guide to what’s driving the European agenda, available for premium subscribers Monday to Friday at 7am CET. Nikkei Asian Review looks at ($ — subscription needed) why bureaucratic timidity led to the withering of Japan’s pharmaceuticals industry, leaving it reliant on foreign countries for vaccine supplies. For fans of the chip story (who isn’t?), Nikkei has dug into how Korean electronics group Samsung lost its lead to Taiwanese chipmaker TSMC.

Elsewhere, the International Economic Law and Policy Blog asks what if the US can’t create consensus around a vaccine waiver. (There are some interesting recommendations for further reading in the comments too.) This week’s Economist delves into the topic ($) of vaccine donations. While Covax has made almost 50m vaccination donations, this is well short of its target. One of the reasons for that being the tragedy unfolding in India. China, meanwhile, has doled out 13.4m doses to 45 different countries, and India more than 10m vaccines. Alan Beattie and Claire Jones

Any recommendations on articles to include in Trade Links? Send your tips here.