Two countries, one booming, one struggling: which one followed the free-trade route?

Expect much gnashing of teeth in Hong Kong this week. The chances of securing a comprehensive trade deal are non-existent, with the talks now really about damage limitation and the apportionment of blame. The development charities will say that the selfish behaviour of the developed world has condemned poor nations to further penury. Washington and Brussels will say the negotiations have been stymied by the obduracy of India and Brazil. Economists will have a field day explaining how the world is turning its back on millions of dollars' worth of extra growth, and that the poor countries will be the ones who will really suffer if the global economy lapses back into a new dark age of protectionism. That's certainly the accepted view. An alternative argument is that the trade talks are pretty much irrelevant to development and that in as much as they do matter, developing countries may be buying a pup. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik is one trade sceptic. Take Mexico and Vietnam, he says. One has a long border with the richest country in the world and has had a free-trade agreement with its neighbour across the Rio Grande. It receives oodles of inward investment and sends its workers across the border in droves. It is fully plugged in to the global economy. The other was the subject of a US trade embargo until 1994 and suffered from trade restrictions for years after that. Unlike Mexico, Vietnam is not even a member of the WTO.