South Africa: Between Regional Integration and Trade Multilateralism

Global trade is conducted through bilateral, regional, interregional and multilateral engagements. Multilateralism, the most widely inclusive process, defined by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a system to help trade flow as freely as possible and set out as its objective. More discriminatory is trade regionalism – involving a number of countries who set barriers of trade for those falling outside their agreement. There has been an increasing proliferation of the discriminatory process in the form of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as well as preferential trade agreements (PTAs) that could suggest a frustration to the multilateral trade negotiations. This paper postulates multilateralism as a top-down approach to achieving the WTO's objective of a non-discriminatory global trade regime as the WTO works to create an obstacle-free, global environment conducive for liberalising global trade by facilitating negotiations. This policy brief examines South Africa's consistent trade objectives in multilateral and preferential trade negotiations and interrogates the threats and opportunities presented by RECs to multilateralism. A welcomed focus to deepened regional integration that could ultimately lead to trade facilitation amongst larger, regional blocs – resulting in breaking the largely continued impasse in the Doha Round, is proposed. With a reference to regional integration in Southern Africa, an argument will be made particularly for RECs, as a conduit for deepening trade integration, instead of preferential trade agreements in general.