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Why Trump’s protectionist bark may not hold much bite for emerging markets

  • Emerging markets are now much less dependent on the West for trade, Chetan Sehgal, director of global emerging markets at Templeton Emerging Markets, said last week.
  • Sehgal said many emerging markets have moved up the value chain and now are no longer just assemblers, and instead are creators of intellectual property.
Workers labor on the production line at the Mitsubishi Motors (Thailand) Co. factory in Laem Chabang, Chonburi Province, Thailand.
Udo Weitz | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Workers labor on the production line at the Mitsubishi Motors (Thailand) Co. factory in Laem Chabang, Chonburi Province, Thailand.

Trade-dependent emerging markets may not take much of a hit from the Trump administration's protectionist rhetoric, even if talk becomes action, analysts said.

At the G-7 meeting on Saturday, President Donald Trump has agreed to include a pledge to fight trade protectionism in a final communique due to be released later on Saturday at the end of a summit of Group of Seven leaders, a G-7 source told Reuters. In a post on Twitter, Trump lauded the summit's outcome, and the group's commitment to eliminating trade-distorting practices.

Yet Chetan Sehgal, director of global emerging markets at Templeton Emerging Markets, noted recently that emerging markets were no longer as dependent on the West for trade.

"Now intra-emerging markets are more important than just the U.S.," Sehgal said. "The trade within emerging markets has picked up much more than the trade with the U.S."

He pointed to data indicating that nearly 60 percent of emerging markets' exports head to other emerging markets, while the portion going to developed markets has fallen to around 40 percent.

Additionally, Sehgal noted that many emerging market companies had moved up the value chain and were no longer just assemblers of Western goods.

"Like 15 years back, the emerging markets used to have 15-20 percent of the world's patent applications but now it's nearly 45 percent," he said. "The next leg of growth is going to be fought based on intellectual capacity on patents and how you move up the technology curve. And I think emerging market companies are able to do that and therefore protectionism, which was important for trade earlier, is now no longer so much of a factor. "

There have been other signs that the U.S. may not be setting the global trade agenda.

On Sunday, 11 of the nations which signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal agreed to assess options to proceed "expeditiously" without the U.S.

TPP had been considered all but dead after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the pact, a broad 12-nation trade deal, which he claimed was a "disaster" that would hurt U.S. manufacturing.

Indeed, although he ran on an anti-globalization agenda, since the election, Trump has since reneged on some of his protectionist campaign rhetoric, such as a vow to label China a currency manipulator on "day one."

But he has continued to target other U.S. trade partners, complaining about the U.S.'s free-trade agreement with South Korea and instituting plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, after first threatening to terminate it entirely.

Others noted a similar divergence in the economic fortunes of the U.S. and emerging Asia .

In a note last week, Singapore bank DBS pointed to China's One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative to build networks of trade and infrastructure across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The bank contrasted that with Trump's oft-repeated and controversial plan to build a "big, beautiful wall" to block out its Southern neighbour Mexico.

The OBOR project is "the antithesis of Trump's wall with Mexico – and it's not just a metaphor, both the Wall and the OBOR are plans for action – a contrast so sharp and so binary it's impossible for anyone to sit on the fence," DBS said.

It noted that Asia exports more than it imports, but generally puts the surplus in investments such as U.S. Treasurys.

For OBOR to get off the ground, DBS said, Asia will need to start investing its surpluses at home, instead of the low-yielding U.S.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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