The emergent threat of China, India and other Asian economies to a wide range of Western industries is nothing new, according to new research by a network of global economic historians convened by Patrick O'Brien and Giorgio Riello of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Before the first and British Industrial Revolution, India was the world's leading producer and exporter of cotton yarn and cloth. Calicoes and chintzes (as well as nakeens from China) flooded into European ports on the ships of the English, Dutch, French and Danish East India Companies from the mid-seventeenth century onwards.
For more than a century, vast quantities of cheap but high-quality Asian manufactures, especially those highly desirable printed, painted and well designed cottons, threatened to wipe out out European indigenous woollen and linen industries.
Mechanisation powered by coal and steam turned out to be the solution to this earlier Asian threat to pastoralise Western Europe. By the early nineteenth century the 'mule' -a spinning machine constructed in Lancashire - allowed one English woman to produce 300 times more yarn in a day than her Indian rival.
By mid-century, the power loom - invented by an Anglican clergyman - had virtually destroyed competition from highly skilled handloom weavers from all over the world.
Even the low wages and cheap food of Asian economies could not withstand the onslaught of European technology and geopolitical power. Divergence in the productivities of labour and standards of living between the East and the West opened up and persisted under European power and imperial rule for the next two centuries.
Britain became the world's leading producer of cotton textiles and, by the onset of free trade and a liberal economic order, possessed 95 per cent of the world's spindles and 80 per cent of its power looms.
LSE's investigations into the long history of cotton textiles as a global industry underlines how mechanisation - coupled with the use of cheap cotton fibres produced by African slaves on plantations in the Americas and the takeover of the Indian sub-continent and the opening of Chinese markets by wars fought for free trade in Opium -enabled the West to dominate the economies of the Orient for the next two centuries.
But by January of this year, when the United States imported over 27 million pairs of cotton trousers and 18 million cotton shirts from China, the tide was clearly moving back from the West to the East.
As Giorgio Riello comments: 'The threat of Asian penetration is happening in industry after industry. Mechanisation, slavery and imperialism can no longer serve as barriers to arrest the tsunami of Asian competition. Liberal economic theory and advocates of free trade confidently anticipate that a new division of labour will emerge that will leave everyone in the world better off. We all hope so.'
Patrick O'Brien and Giorgio Riello convene the Global Economic History Network (GEHN): http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/economicHistory/GEHN/Default.htm
Giorgio Riello presented some of the findings at the Economic History Society's 2005 Annual Conference at the University of Leicester on Saturday 9 April. Additional material on the cotton project can be found at:
Patrick O'Brien and Giorgio Riello are in the Economic History Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
11 April 2005