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August 23, 2017

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NAFTA revision still a long way from being settled

THE first round of long-awaited talks on modernizing NAFTA ended on Sunday, with Canada, Mexico and the United States issuing a statement that they had made “detailed conceptual presentations” of their positions.

Negotiators from the three countries will meet again in Mexico on September 1 to continue trying to revise the trade pact. But while all say they are keen to see a new deal emerge, they still have to navigate the political risks attached to any commercial agreement.

Donald Trump’s promise to renegotiate trade deals was a key plank of his “America First” campaign platform. One of his first acts in the White House was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with countries in Asia-Pacific and the Americas, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Meanwhile, negotiations between Washington and the European Union for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have not resumed since Barack Obama left office.

Speculation now centers on the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, typically seen by many economists as at least a qualified success story. Since 1994, trade between the US, Mexico and Canada has more than tripled, forming a trading bloc with a combined GDP of around US$20 trillion.

However, prominent representatives of both the left and right, from Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader to Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, have long criticized the agreement for contributing to a hollowing out of the country’s manufacturing industry and lost US jobs, partly because of increased trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. Right-wingers also accuse NAFTA of undermining US sovereignty and opening up the United States to what they see as a rising threat from drugs, crime and immigration from Mexico.

From a different standpoint, even some previous advocates of NAFTA have become less enthusiastic about the deal, partly because the three countries have been unable to fully address challenges like tightened border security.

NAFTA is also seen to have stalled because Mexico, Canada and the US have increasingly preferred to push bilateral solutions rather than addressing opportunities and problems trilaterally. A key rationale for the prevailing lack of triliteralism in the continent is that the NAFTA architects from Canada and Mexico wanted to curb EU-type political institution building they feared would lead to a Brussels-style bureaucracy dominated by Washington.

Equally, Washington has generally disliked the idea of developing any pan-North American political institutions that could rein in US autonomy.

Trump jumped into this cauldron of criticism in the 2016 election campaign by calling NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.” In key electoral states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, his championing of an anti-international trade agenda helped win him significant support last November. (In April, Trump told Reuters that he had been “psyched” to terminate NAFTA, but changed his mind after Canada and Mexico asked for it to be renegotiated instead.)

Many US businesses have urged that forthcoming negotiations should not jeopardize existing market access, and that the key negotiating principle should, in the words of United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, be to “do no harm.” Now the USTR and the administration must assess exactly how much overhaul is politically necessary to meet the expectations generated by Trump’s statement that “we’re going to make some very big changes or we are going to get rid of NAFTA once and for all.”

Uncertainty over NAFTA, the TPP and Trump’s trade policies in general, could create a significant political vacuum for China. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baoding said last year that “protectionism is rearing its ugly head. China believes we should set up a new plan to sustain momentum for the early establishment of free trade areas.”

Beijing’s alternative vision includes a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific, a long-term goal to link Pacific Rim economies from China to Chile that has been debated since 2004. In the shorter term, Beijing is also pushing a free trade pact, for which discussions have been underway since 2012, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. That would include the 10 ASEAN members plus India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, but not the US.

RCEP, smaller in scope to FTAAP, would create one of the largest free trade zones in the world.


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