The first pan-continental free trade area in the developing world has been achieved in Africa with the launching of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This step, in effect, allowed for the creation of a framework for co-integrating the numerous regional integration arrangements on the African continent. The next possible step towards a pan-continental free trade area could be observed in the coming years in Latin America, where regional conditions are improving for continental initiatives to be advanced.
The next stage in progressing towards a free-trade area for the Global South would be to link up the pan-continental free trade arrangements in Africa and Latin America. The two pan-continental blocs are broadly similar in terms of the size of GDP — in 2021 Africa’s GDP totaled around USD 2.7 trn, while for South America’s 12 economies the total in 2021 was around USD 3.25 trn. Furthermore, there is already a track-record of Africa-Latin America cooperation in the sphere of “integration of integrations” via the signing of a preferential trade agreement between MERCOSUR and the South African Customs Union (SACU) in 2008-2009 – the trade deal entered into force in April 2016.
In recent years links between Latin America’s regional organizations and Africa have further strengthened. On 7 September 2021, leaders from the African Union and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) convened the 1st Africa CARICOM Summit
Furthermore, in 2021 in the context of Argentina’s Presidency Pro Tempore, MERCOSUR and the African Union undertook steps to boost bilateral relations between the two regional blocs. In particular
, “the Secretary for International Economic Relations, Jorge Neme, chaired the first Mercosur-African Union Meeting, aimed at strengthening relations between the blocs, renewing political ties, further reinforcing cooperation mechanisms and fostering economic relations”.
The more complicated steps will involve the incorporation of Asia, most notably China, into the common South-South FTA platform. The difficulty emanates from the fragmentation of the regional integration patterns in Asia as well as the asymmetries in terms of size: Asia accounts for over 80% of the Global South total GDP, while China alone accounts for well over a third of the total economic mass of the Global South. Another factor is competitiveness: China exerts a competitive edge in a wide range of industries compared to its Global South peers, making the prospect of free trade more difficult to digest politically and economically. One possible option in attenuating these competitive pressures may be to precede the FTA with a preferential trade agreement across the South-South platform that does not involve the creation of a full-scale trade liberalization in the very near term, but rather a sequential, step-wise lifting of barriers in key priority sectors. There will also be a need to include provisions that protect the interests and needs of the least developed economies of the Global South.
Estimates from the United Nations ESCAP suggest that the potential dividends from the creation of a South-South FTA may be substantial
— “such a scenario would enhance South-South trade significantly. Most of the South countries would experience rise in export to other South countries”. One of the possible guides in this respect may be the progression of the AfCFTA project — according to the estimates of the World Bank
, “by 2035 the AfCFTA is set to lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty and 68 million from moderate poverty”. A more recent study
by the World Bank finds that “under deep integration, Africa’s exports to the rest of the world could rise by 32% by 2035, while intra-African exports could grow by 109%, led by manufactured goods”.