How Regional Trade Blocs affect Liberalisation of International Trade

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

53 Pages, Grade: B+



1.2 Theme of the research
1.3 Aim of the research
1.4 Scope of the research
1.5 Research methodology

2.1 Trade blocs as stumbling blocks to liberalisation of trade
2.2 Regional trade blocs as building blocks to liberalisation of international trade
2.3 Regional trading blocs and political stability, democratic development and security issues
2.4 Concluding remarking on the review of literature

3.1 Analysis of the selected regional blocs
3.1.1 The EU
3.1.2 NAFTA
3.1.3 ASEAN

4.1 Evidence from trade statistics between regions
4.1.1 EU relations trade with other regional trading blocs/countries EU and MERCOSUR The EU, Latin America, and the Caribbean (LAC) EU versus Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP)
4.1.2 ASEAN relations trade with other regional trading blocs/countries
4.2 Trading blocs and foreign direct investment (FDI)
4.3 Regional trading blocs and the gravity model




A trade bloc is a preferential trade agreement between a range of nations, aimed at significantly reducing or removing trade barriers within the member states. Regional trade blocs are formed by neighbouring countries or countries that are in close proximity to each other. The two key features of a trade bloc is that (1) it involves a cutback or abolition of obstacles to trade, and (2) the trade liberalisation that is attained through the trade bloc is discriminatory in purview of the fact that it is applicable only to the member states of the trade bloc and non-member countries are shown prejudice in their dealings with members of the trade bloc.

The first aspect of trade blocs above is in line with the mission of the World trade Organisation (WTO) and its antecedent, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The principle of Non-discrimination under the GATT stipulates that no member state shall show prejudice between GATT members during the operations of world trade.[1] In the same magnitude, the WTO offers an environment for negotiating agreements that are focused on reducing barriers to international trade and making sure that trade is carried out on a basis of openness, thus contributing to economic growth as well as development.[2] Notably, although trade blocs have different structures, they are premised on the same objective, that is, to lessen trade barriers among member states.[3]

The second aspect of trade blocs however seems to be in conflict with the motive of the GATT/WTO system. The preamble of the GATT is very clear on promoting non-discrimination in international trade by reinforcing the need for reciprocal and equally advantageous arrangements focused on substantial cutbacks in tariffs and other obstacles to trade and to the abolition of discriminatory treatment in international trade.[4] Equally, under the WTO as well as under its predecessor, the GATT, trade discrimination is promoted through the use of the principles of the Most-Favoured-Nation (MFN) that requires treatment of other people equally as pertains to trade and the principle of National Treatment which stipulates that foreigners and locals should be treated equally in trade matters.[5]

The above overview of regional trading blocs implies that different opinions can be stated regarding how trading blocs affect liberalisation of trade. While regional trading blocs promote liberalisation of trade between the member states of a trading bloc, they impose restrictions to other states. But this is an issue that needs to be investigated deeply to show how regional trading blocs actually affect liberalisation of international trade.

1.2 Theme of the research

The focus of the research is on the various ways in which regional trading blocs affect trading blocs. The research will delve on the dual role of trading blocs: as building blocks and as stumbling blocks to liberalisation of international trade.

1.3 Aim of the research

The aim of the research is to analyse the role played by regional trading blocs with reference to liberalisation of international trade.

1.4 Scope of the research

While most existing literature shows that trading blocs are a hindrance to liberalisation of trade in line with the aims of the WTO, the planned research aims to demystify the analogies of the 1930s which largely viewed regional trading bloc as obstacles to international trade. The research will thus seek to justify that regional trading blocs are building blocks to liberalisation of international trade.

1.5 Research methodology

The research information will be gathered from a wide array of sources, including books, journals, and websites of organisations such as OECD, WTO, the World bank and so forth.


The number of trading blocs the world over has been dramatically growing. A notable example is the European Union (EU), which, in 1992 completed the single-market programme and started a historic plan for a monetary union.[6] Similarly, Canada, Mexico and the United States formed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Japan, which for many years was the only advanced nation that was not allied to any regional agreement, signed a trade accord with Singapore in the 2001. Other regional blocs include the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN)[7] ; MERCOSUR (bringing together Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay); the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ; and the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM)[8] to name but a few. Even African regions that have not been very significant in international trade under the WTO are represented by trading blocs such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)[9].

The aforementioned trade blocs are just but a few of the regional economic integrations in the world. In addition to the regional trade blocs, there were 162 regional trade accords signed under the GATT and WTO system by 2002, and the International Chamber of Commerce and estimated that there would be 100-200 new regional trade integrations by the year 2005.[10] It is believed that regional and bilateral trade agreements may bring quicker results compared with the multilateral agreements under the WTO system, may allow parties to achieve levels of liberalisation further than the multilateral agreements, and may be able to handle specific matters that may not be reflected in the multilateral menu. Pasadilla argues along the same line, noting that preferential trade agreements or negotiations are simpler and more straightforward relative to WTO negotiations, not only because there is a smaller number of parties to negotiate with and influence, but also for the reason that it is easier to be reach an agreement on temporary exclusions of exceedingly sensitive sectors.[11] In this way, the achievements made under regional trade blocs can be considered to be significant complements to the WTO system, and thus they can be vital building blocks for future multilateral trade liberalisation.[12]

But trade blocs are criticised in an equal measure. According to Trebilcock and Howse, regional trading blocks have generally been condemned by trade economists, who have given a number of straightforward reasons.[13] From an economic point of view, regional trading blocs, regardless of their expansion properties with reference to intra-regional trade, almost necessarily encompass some form of trade diversion with regard to the point that lower-cost producers who not belong to the regional trading bloc are discriminated against, thus debilitating the efficient global allocation of resources and ultimately reducing the global welfare.[14] If this happens, it is definitely against the stipulations of the WTO, which aims to support and foster sustainable development, lower poverty levels, raise people’s life standards, and promote peace and stability. Nevertheless, the significance of regional trade blocs and the relationship between them and international trade cannot be gainsaid, as more recently there has been significant interest in the less formal trade arrangements otherwise known as triangles or quadrangles. Importantly, every member of the WTO today is also a member of at least one sub regional or regional cooperation arrangement, many countries are members both, and some even belong to more than one regional unit.[15] For example, seven countries in Africa are both members of SADC and COMESA. Similarly, one member state of the East African Community (EAC) has membership to SADC while two others are members of COMESA.[16]

As it was pointed out earlier the overriding objective of regional trade blocs is to reduce trade barriers between states. There are two types of trade blocs: (1) a free trade area, where trade barriers between member countries are removed but the states keep their separate national barriers against trade with the rest of the globe; and (2) a customs union, in which all trade obstructions between member states are eliminated but there are common external barriers against all other countries.[17]

Some analysts have argued that regional trade blocs that lower the prudence of states nations to pursue trade liberalisation with non-members are likely to turn into barriers to multilateralism.[18] For example, if China has already been successful in finding a market partner in the United States, it would develop little interest for a free trade arrangement with the United States. But its less thriving rival, India, would be keen to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the United States and hence capture China’s share of the United States market; not by making a better or less costly product, but by obtaining special treatment under the United States trade law. Once India obtains its special privilege, it would not interested in less interest in attending WTO meetings and signing multilateral free trade agreements that would instead eliminate those privileges.

There are two more factors to propose that members of a regional trade bloc may not be interested in global liberalisation. To begin with, members of the trading bloc may not realise additional economics of scale from global trade liberalisation, which often offers only meek opening of international markets. Regional trading blocs, which often offer more widespread trade liberalisation, may enable local firms to achieve adequate production and hence deplete scale economies. Second, member state of a trade bloc may want to devote the resources they have to creating robust regional connections rather than investing them in international talks.[19]

2.1 Trade blocs as stumbling blocks to liberalisation of trade

Frankel, Stein and Wei evaluate trading blocs as stumbling blocks to liberalisation of trade by looking at factors such as the trading blocs’ market power and incentive to protect, manipulation by special interests, scarce negotiator resources, and the point that firms’ support for free trade agreements may be a political dead end.[20] According to the same authors, as trading blocs become larger, they gain more collective monopoly power, and thus have a higher optimal tariff command. This aspect is referred to as the “incentive to protect.” Each of the blocs then seeks to move the terms of trade in its favour by raising tariffs against the other trading blocs. When the actions of trading blocs are combined the result is that terms of trade are not improved and that the general welfare is not improved as opposed to the aim of WTO.

The argument regarding manipulation states that establishing a regional trading bloc results in opportunities for trade-sensitive industries to manipulate the process, especially in those sectors that might be adversely affected. As noted by Wonnacott and Lutz,[21] negotiators often seek to exclude from free trade agreements those sectors that would be most threatened by welfare-enhancing trade creation. For instance, the members of ASEAN have in the past exempted nearly all the important sectors from the system of preferences that they are supposed to offer each other.[22]

It is obvious that negotiating the terms of dealing in trade blocs such as creating trading trade agreements, ratifying them and compensating losers are costly. It is for this reason that is not pointless to say that countries would want to protect the blocs they are in, and this sets back the negotiations of global trade liberalisation under the WTO.[23]

Another point with regard to firms and their support for free trade agreements is that regional schemes might prevent multilateral initiatives when the order of decisions matters. The forces that support liberalisation might win out over protectionists if the only choice available is between the status quo and multilateral liberalisation. But if there is an option of a regional free trade area, the political process might eventually be diverted to the regional route while excluding the multilateral route.[24]

2.2 Regional trade blocs as building blocks to liberalisation of international trade

There are also indications that when designed according to rules of candidness and inclusiveness, regional trading blocs can be building blocks as opposed to stumbling blocs for global investment and free trade. According to Carbaugh, regional blocs can enhance global market openings in a number of ways.[25] First is that regional blocs may attain more economic integration than do multilateral talks because of greater harmony of interests and less complicated negotiating procedures. Second, a regional free trade area leads to the creation of a self reinforcing process, in that as the market formed by a bloc expands, it becomes progressively more appealing for non-member states to join the bloc in order to be accorded the same trade preferences as the member states. Third, regional liberalisation promotes biased change of workers out of import-competing firms in which the country’s comparative advantage is more pronounced. As the modification continues, the section of the workforce that gains from liberalised trade grows, and the section that is on the losing end declines. The result is that there is political support for a trade liberalisation in a self-propelling process. Thus, due to these reasons, when trade blocs are formed in line with the principles of honesty, they may overlap and expand, hence promoting international liberalised trade from the bottom up.[26] Along the same line, Kwan and Qiu state that it is believed that regional trade agreements and multilateral trade negotiations affect each other.[27] Thus, it is hoped that by forming a regional free trade agreement, countries push forward to multinational trade liberalisation.

Frankel, Stein and Wei again evaluate the contributions made by trading blocs to the liberalisation of international trade. Reviewing various sources, the authors point out that trade blocs help to lock in and mobilise regional solidarity, they increase the efficiency of negotiating with larger units, they help to build export constituencies to create domestic political momentum, and they increase competitive liberalisation. The review also shows that trade blocs are ever-expanding, reflecting the positive impact that such organisation have on international trade.[28] Mexico is one country that has shown membership to a trade agreement can be more beneficial than commitment to WTO principles especially in times of crisis. During a debt crisis in 1994, Mexico raised tariffs on some products against partners outside of the Western Hemisphere but continued to cut tariffs on trade with the United States as called for under the NAFTA agreement. Such differential response is regrettable, but it shows that the regional agreement in which Mexico was involved bound tariffs more strongly compared with WTO membership, this happened to the benefit of the United States.

It has been argued that trading blocs now offer an opportunity for faster negotiations unlike the situation in the past. For instance it took 35 years to form the customs union of the European Community, but FTAs such as NAFTA and MERCOSUR have taken a relatively shorter time to put in place. The question therefore is which between multilateral agreements and FTAs is faster to implement. In view of multilateral negotiations, it can be slow and awkward for one nation to be involved in talks with more than 100 countries. The WTO membership reached 153 by 2008[29], and the costs of negotiations certainly rise as this number increases. Therefore, it is easier for a smaller group of states to discuss customs unions first. Having attained a common trade policy, they can then enter multilateral discussions as a group. Ultimately, this is thought to increase the efficiency of negotiations and to cause a satisfactory global agreement more likely.[30] The EU is an exemplar of a regional trading bloc that has attained this status.

In terms of building export constituencies to create domestic political momentum, the “bicycle theory” implies that any form of liberalisation momentum is better than no liberalisation at all. Hence, according to Trebilcock and Howse, biased forms of liberalising trade on a regional framework may be better than no liberalisation at all, in that the regional bloc may sustain or cultivate forward momentum on liberalisation of trade in the long run.[31] But again, a contrary view as pointed out by the same author is that partial trade liberalisation may be worse than no trade liberalisation at all. According to a model suggested by Wei and Frankel (1996), a two-step practice where regional blocs precede multilateral free trade could in effect reconfigure alliances as regards the issue of trade liberalisation.[32] Hence, those who may be against a general trade liberalisation programme find themselves undecided on the issue of joining a regional trading bloc. It is here that the governments come in whereby, by exploring the complexity for various resistance forces to organise themselves, they can gather enough political support to create a regional trading bloc. With the formation of the regional bloc, a new majority of the population may support the need to push for further liberalisation.[33]

Another argument in favour of trade blocs as a boon to liberalisation of trade is that regionalism spurs competitive liberalisation. Bergsten argued that each member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) would seek to dismantle trade barriers faster than the next as a means of competing for international capital.[34] Frankel, Stein and Wei further argue that trade liberalisation is more likely in an economy that is part of a region which in which other economies are liberalising.[35] This claim emphasises the reason why at least every country in the world is a member of a trading bloc or some trading blocs today. Along the same line, Chand points out that before the establishment of ASEAN, the East Asia and South East Asia regions did not have any efficient preferential trade blocs, and this placed the Asian states in a sort of unfavourable position when facing worldwide competitive liberalisation that has been growing since the 1990s.[36]

Finally, it has been argued that when a bloc is formed, non-member states might respond by seeking to join rather than opting to form their own blocs. Several authors have pointed out that non-member states one by one will find it in their interest to join a given free trade area. The incentive to join lies fundamentally in the fact that the bloc turns the terms of trade in favour of the members while discriminating against the non-members. When the membership to a bloc increases, firms in non-members countries become less competitive and so push their representatives to join the bloc. In turn, each member increases the incentive for the remaining non-member states to join the trading bloc. As the bloc enlarges, its members gain progressively as the terms of trade are shifted more and more in their favour. Even then, the gains made by the expansion of a bloc may not necessarily be felt by all member states. According to Deardorff and Stern, new members cause changes in the relative prices within the bloc, and this results in benefits to some members as others are harmed.[37]

2.3 Regional trading blocs and political stability, democratic development and security issues

As shown at the outset of the literature review, there are many regional trading blocs around the world. However, three of them (EU, NAFTA and ASEAN) have grown to be very influential. Segal-Horn and Faulkner argue that a potential exists for the formation of about six or seven massive world trading blocs in the near future, with giant economies such as China and India existing as trading blocs in their own right.

Segal-Horn and Faulkner further point out the advantages of countries getting involved in regional trading blocs as overall growth in international trade and fostering of international stability.[38] Further, moves towards liberalisation of international trade have been aligned with the “formation of larger and larger, and more and more regional trading blocs.”[39] Thus the two critical issues, expansion of international trade and increased political stability, are intertwined.

A case of increasing political stability can be seen by the expansion of the EU. The bloc has expanded from its original six members to 14 member states by 1998 and 25 by 2004. Some of those countries that joined lately such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia are from Eastern Europe and were once members of the tumultuous former Soviet bloc. Such expansion of the EU membership is seen as a way of contributing to the stable adjustment and development of the post Soviet economies and hence the overall long-term stability of Europe as a whole.[40] Such development may undoubtedly foster international trade between Europe and countries in other countries, and within Europe. There has been a big debate on whether Turkey should join the union. On one side, those who support Turkey joining argue that an expanded EU will increase regional political stability by way of shared growth and political economic institutions. Those opposed to the move argue that Turkey’s membership would offer a gateway for cheap labour and even for terrorists through Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders. In deed, this illustrates one of the problems that hinder the development of regional trading blocs.

But elsewhere, there is a likelihood of NAFTA enlarging gradually to include much of Central and South America. This is evidenced by the fact that since 1987, the United States has joined 16 “framework agreements with the countries of Latin America. Further, the anticipated Free Trade area of the Americas (FTAA) has an outline agreement of 34 states in North and South America. Such an arrangement would most likely increase political stability across the geographic zone, with a significant level of increase in trade and investment.[41]

2.4 Concluding remarking on the review of literature

Regional trading blocs are always rated as a second-best option to liberalising international trade. That is, trade blocs would be second compared to an undistorted free trade system. But the undistorted or ideal trading international trade system does not exist, hence the case against regional trading blocs is not so clear.[42] According to the theory of Second Best, free trade among all nations would optimise the allocation of the world’s resources and hence maximise global input and improve welfare.[43] But the creation of regional trading blocs would not lead to such a scenario, as it would not lead to complete liberalisation of international trade due to the barriers between different trade blocs. In other words, a global economy that comprises regional trading blocs still has tariff and non-tariff trade barriers, and cannot, therefore generate maximum welfare gains[44] compared with the “ideal” free trade system.

All in all, it is still difficult to answer questions regarding the aspects of regional trade agreements and their connection with multilateralism. Notably, regional trade blocs continue to attract many new members and defections are rare,[45] implying that countries are benefiting in terms of trade from being members of regional trading blocs. Overall agreements between members of regional trading blocs seem to have a domino effect as those states that are not members of a given trading bloc lose competitiveness and exporters thus press for entry. Ultimately, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points out that the regional integration process could result in universal free trade and the course towards it could be speeded even further, if regional accords offer an incentive to outsiders to wrap up multilateral trade negotiations.[46] The OECD further states that the formation of regional trading blocs also offers motivation to create new regional integration arrangements, partly so as to develop more bargaining power. This can result in multilateral free trade due to continued expansion and conglutination of the various regional trade agreements.[47]

But still, in the words of Schott, there are no straight answers to the question of whether regional trade blocs promote liberalisation of trade and strengthen multilateralism, or whether they deviate from and hinder WTO initiatives and embody an alternative to the WTO system.[48] Attempts to answer these questions can be made by assessing how free trade agreements are crafted as well the volume of trade covered, who partakes in the trading, and whether significant progress on multilateral reforms proceeds concurrently in the WTO.[49]


This section discusses the trends of trade among regional trade blocs and how such trade blocs affect liberalisation of trade. In order to understand specific blocs, this paper will focus on the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN and MERCOSUR. This first requires an understanding of each of the blocs and how the agreements involved have taken effect.

3.1 Analysis of the selected regional blocs

3.1.1 The EU

The EU, which now brings together 27 European countries, formally came into existence in 1992. The role played by the EU is fundamental because the union doubles as the most developed and most complexly structured of the major trade blocs.[50] EU members share one market, one external border one trade policy. This offers the European Commission (EC) the council that enacts EU legislation an upper hand when it engages in talks with the EU’s partners. It implies that there is only one negotiation process, one representative – that is the EC, and that at the completion of the process there is just one agreement rather than of 27 dissimilar sets of rules of trade with each of the trading parents. The EC also acts as a representative of EU member nations in the WTO. By having one voice, the EU has the power both to create an open global trading system premised on reasonable rules and to make sure that those principles are adhered to.[51]

Membership in the EU embodies a liberal trade policy for its membership vis-à-vis other member states of the union. According to Gabel, liberalised trade may influence national economic conditions in a wide array of ways that are significant to the welfare of the citizens in member states of the EU. The author also notes that free trade can promote economic growth and spur employment opportunities. In turn, this leads to increased tax receipts as well as expanded public services. But on the contrary, liberalised trade can harm a national economy that is not competitive with foreign firms, thus causing a decline in national economic performance, a drop in tax receipts, as well as a decline in public services for citizens. In this respect, liberalised trade within the EU has utilitarian implications for EU citizens due to its effects on their national economies.[52]


[1] P K Jalan, Industrial sector reforms in globalization era (Sarup & Sons, 2004), 255.

[2] WTO, “About the WTO — a statement by the Director-General” (2011)

[3] World Bank, World development indicators 2003 (Publications, 2003) 325.

[4] M. J. Trebilcock & Robert Howse, The regulation of international trade 2nd ed (Routledge, New York, 1999), p. 25

[5] WTO, “Principles of the trading system” (2011)

[6] K A Chase, Trading blocs: States, firms, and regions in the world economy (University of Michigan Press, 2005), 1.

[7] Ibid

[8] M J Trebilcock & R Howse, The regulation of international trade 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2005), 195.

[9] P Khandelwal, COMESA and SADC: prospects and challenges for regional trade integration, Issues 2004-2227 (International Monetary Fund, 2004), 14.

[10] ICC (above)

[11] G O Pasadilla, “Preferential trading agreements and agricultural liberalization in East and South-East Asia” Philippine Institute for Development Studies Discussion Paper Series No. 2006-02 (January 2006), 17

[12] Ibid

[13] M J Trebilcock & R Howse, The regulation of international trade 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2005), 195.

[14] Ibid

[15] J Menon, “Can Subregionalism or Regionalism Aid Multilateralism? The Case of the Greater Mekong Subregion and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Free Trade Area” Journal of GMS Development Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, (October 2005), 22.

[16] P Khandelwal (above), 14

[17] J Buultjens, Excel HSC economics (Pascal Press, 2005), 13.

[18] R J Carbaugh, International Economics 2nded (Cengage Learning, 2008), 266.

[19] Ibid

[20] J A Frankel, E Stein & S Wei, Regional trading blocs in the world economic system (Peterson Institute, 1997), 210-214.

[21] Ibid, 212-213

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid, p. 214

[24] Ibid, p. 214-215

[25] R J Carbaugh (above)

[26] Ibid

[27] Y K Kwan & L D Qiu, “The ASEAN+3 Trading Bloc” (Journal of Economic Integration 25(1), March 2010; 1-31), 4

[28] J A Frankel, E Stein & S Wei (above), 216-223

[29] WTO, not dated, “Understanding The WTO: The organisation,” viewed 21 May 2011, <>

[30] J A Frankel, E Stein & S Wei (above), 218

[31] M J Trebilcock & R Howse, The regulation of international trade 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2005), 27

[32] S Wei & J A Frankel, “Can regional bloc be a stepping stone to global trade? A political economy analysis” (International Review of Economics and Finance, 5 (4)), 346.

[33] Ibid

[34] J A Frankel, E Stein & S Wei (above), 220

[35] ibid

[36] R Chand, Free trade area in Asia (Academic Foundation, 2006), 14

[37] A V Deardorff & R M Stern, “EU Expansion and EU Growth” (Research Seminar in International Economics, Discussion Paper No. 487), 16.

[38] S Segal-Horn & D Faulkner, Understanding global strategy (Cengage Learning EMEA, 2010), 62

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid, 195.

[43] H Kyambalesa & M C Houngnikpo, Economic integration and development in Africa (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 14.

[44] Ibid

[45] OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, The European Union's Trade Policies and their Economic Effects (OECD Publishing, 2000), 80.

[46] Ibid

[47] Ibid, 81

[48] J J Schott, “Free Trade Agreements: Boon or Bane of the World Trading System?” In Free trade agreements: US strategies and priorities ( Peterson Institute, 2004), 4

[49] Ibid, 4-5

[50] P Q Hirst & G Thompson, Globalization in question: the international economy and the possibilities of governance 2nd ed (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), 228

[51] European Community, “What is Europe’s trade policy? “(European Communities, 2009)

[52] M J Gabel, Interests and integration: market liberalization, public opinion, and European Union, (University of Michigan Press, 1998), 74

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