“The real end winner of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is going to be Mexico […]” said then Mexican president Vicente Fox, in 2001. He was referring to Mexico’s gains from trade integration with the USA through NAFTA.
Vicente Fox was right. Mexico has continued to make sustained gains in trade over a 20 year period after signing NAFTA in 1994 with the US, its much larger partner (figure 1).
Opening up trade is not easy because losses can be immediate, while gains, despite being potentially much larger and more widespread, are often dispersed over time. Producers that may sustain losses from more open imports are often well organized and can hold up reforms quite effectively. Moreover, when one of the countries involved in mutual trade liberalization is disproportionately large, it enables the smaller country lobbies to raise the specter of being swamped by imports from its larger partner.
In the case of South Asia, a history of political differences further complicates deeper trade and economic cooperation within the region. Under these circumstances, opening up trade to neighbors requires strong leadership and a bold vision about the role of trade and regional integration in economic development.