Category Archives: United States

Trump Trade Policy ‘Achievements’: The First Month

Alicia Nicholls

February 20th marked United States (US) President Donald Trump’s first full month in the Oval Office. And what a month it has been! We have seen a lot of focus by his administration on immigration. But what about trade? Trade occupied a major part of the platform of then US presidential candidate Trump. In his Contract with the American Voter , he had enumerated several trade-related pledges as part of his 100-day action plan to “Make America Great Again”. His first one hundred days are not yet up, but it is worth looking at what have been the achievements towards his “America first” trade policy during his first month in office.

President Trump’s Trade Promises

As a reminder, these were the major trade-related promises gleaned from his Contract with the American Voter. He pledged to:

  • Announce his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205;
  • Announce the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership;
  • Direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator;
  • Direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately;
  • Work with Congress to introduce the “End Offshoring Act” to establish tariffs to discourage US companies from laying off their workers in order to relocate in other countries and ship their products back to the U.S. tax-free.

Three main reasons possibly explain Mr. Trump’s slow progress on his trade agenda thus far. Firstly, two key members of his trade team  who are needed to help effect his policies are still awaiting Senate confirmation, namely his United States Trade Representative (USTR) pick, noted trade lawyer and former deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, Robert Lighthizer, and his commerce secretary nominee, Wilbur Ross, an investor and former banker.

Secondly and related to the first point,Mr. Trump’s policy inexperience means he will likely be more reliant on the guidance and advice of his yet-to-be confirmed trade team than would other presidents. Thirdly, it is possible that Mr. Trump is realising that there is a wide chasm between presidential campaign rhetoric and how Washington and the role of president actually work, particularly when contrasted with being a CEO of one’s own company.

What has he achieved so far and what hasn’t he?

With that in mind, it is not surprising that of his stated promises, his only substantive trade policy achievement thus far has been directing the USTR via a presidential memorandum to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Withdrawal from the TPP was a low-hanging fruit. The US had signed but not yet ratified the Agreement and there was almost bi-partisan criticism of the deal. The acting USTR has since followed up on this memorandum, submitting a withdrawal letter to the TPP depository and TPP partners, and indicating their interest in bilateral trade deals with former TPP partners with which the US does not currently have a trade agreement.

Further to the latter point, President Trump and his soon-to-be confirmed trade team have been consistent so far on their preference for bilateralism over multilateralism. Trade was one of the hot button topics at his initial meetings with United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Theresa May,   Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

In keeping with his campaign promise that post-Brexit UK would not be at the back of queue for a trade deal, Mr. Trump received Prime Minister May as his first foreign head of government. The two have reportedly agreed to establish working groups in regards to a possible post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. Indeed, the UK House of Common’s International Trade Committee has already launched an inquiry on this.  However, formal negotiations on any such deal can only legally begin once the UK concludes its withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU) pursuant to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

More immediately possible, however, may be trade talks between Japan and the US. Despite Mr. Trump’s earlier criticism of former TPP partner Japan’s “unfair trade practices”, the meeting with Mr. Abe went cordially, with agreement in principle for beginning US-Japan trade and investment talks. It should be noted that Japan has a large trade surplus with the US, boosted particularly by automobile exports, which might be a bone of contention in any trade talks between the two countries.

Outside of withdrawing from the TPP and these preliminary aspirational trade talks, there has been limited progress so far on his specific campaign promise in comparison to the ambitious agenda he proposed. So far he has not labelled China a “currency manipulator”. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had indicated that China’s currency was no longer below value. Nonetheless, Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, hesitated in a recent CNBC interview to “pass judgment” on China’s currency practices, stating his preference to go through the US Treasury’s established process on judging whether China (and other countries) was manipulating its currency to boost exports.

Additionally, President has not yet triggered the 90-day notice period by informing Congress of his intention to renegotiate NAFTA, which he had promised to do “immediately”. While Mr. Trump has criticised the shift of US jobs to Mexico and the US’ large merchandise trade with that NAFTA partner, it is also not clear on what particular provisions of the agreement he wishes to “tweak”.

What is clear is that Mr. Trump’s main grievance with NAFTA appears to be with Mexico more so than with Canada. Indeed, Mr. Trump took a less protectionist stance towards Canada during his meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, speaking collectively of keeping jobs and wealth within North America (US and Canada) and not just the US. While reporting on his meeting with Canada’s Prime Trudeau indicates that he would be looking for greater access by American firms to Canadian procurement markets, it is unclear when the NAFTA renegotiation talks will begin.

With respect to the promise to direct the USTR to identify countries engaging in “unfair trade practices”, his USTR nominee is still awaiting confirming. However, it has been longstanding US policy to challenge nations whose actions are against US economic and trading interests, as evidenced by the large number of disputes brought by the US before the WTO’s dispute settlement body.  Therefore, President Trump will not be doing anything more than what previous US administrations have done in this regard, although we will likely see an even more aggressive stance towards China’s trade practices.

Mr. Trump has spoken frequently against US companies which offshore production processes (and therefore jobs), as evidenced by his deal with air conditioner maker Carrier. He has promised to, but has not yet proposed, legislation to impose a punitive tax on US companies seeking to offshore may receive stiff opposition from the business community and from Congress.

He has, however, vacillated in his views on the controversial Border  Adjustment  Tax (BAT) proposal being pushed by Congressional Republicans as part of their tax reform plan. Different from Trump’s border tariff proposal, the GOP BAT Proposal seeks to convert the US corporate income tax from an origin-based to a destination-based tax. It would prevent companies from deducting the costs of their imported goods as an expense, while giving a tax break to companies which export. However, while some business leaders have praised the idea, some economists have argued that it will not boost US exports.

What next?

Besides the questions surrounding the renegotiation of NAFTA and which other nations the Administration will earmark for future bilateral deals, it is unclear what will be the Trump administration’s stance on other existing trade agreements, and on the on-going negotiations, including the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU and on the plurilateral negotiations such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). There is also need for clarity on the Administration’s position on key multilateral trade issues, bearing in mind the WTO’s upcoming 11th Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires at the end of this year.  Nonetheless, it is early days yet and it is hoped there will be greater policy clarity before the one hundred days have elapsed.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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President Trump signs executive order pulling US out of TPP

Alicia Nicholls

With the stroke of a pen, newly inaugurated United States president, Donald J. Trump, today made good on one of his least controversial campaign promises; withdrawing his country from the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement via an executive order.

The Agreement, which was signed by the US and eleven other Pacific-rim participants in February 2016, was intended to be a high standard agreement and was significantly WTO-plus in its provisions. While hailed by big business for its ambitiousness, several aspects made the agreement significantly unpopular with civil society groups and increasingly some politicians which criticised the secrecy under which the negotiations took place, the implications of its intellectual property rights provisions for access to medicines, the choice of the longstanding investor-state dispute settlement mechanism for settlement of investor claims against states, inter alia.

Another criticism was that in absence of significant progress in the WTO Doha Round (which is now all but declared dead) it would set new standards and rules for 21st century global trade given that the parties account for 40% of the global economy and a third of global trade. It would turn the non members into standard-takers without having the chance to have been at the negotiating table. Mr Trump’s criticism of the agreement,however, was simply that it would kill American jobs.

Although President Barack Obama had championed the agreement and had pushed unsuccessfully for its ratification by congress, TPP was a rare point on which there was consensus by then candidates Republican, Donald Trump and Democrat, Hillary Clinton who both criticised its possible implications for US manufacturing and jobs. During the campaign, Mr. Trump had likened the agreement to rape of the country. Previously Mrs. Clinton had called it the “gold standard” but later said she was against the final outcome.

The move is a politically beneficial one for President Trump as it ticks off one of his most popular campaign promises and makes him look like a hero for American workers. It also gets him bipartisan support and will likely improve his approval ratings which have been the lowest for an incoming president.

Mr. Trump’s move also signals that he aims to stick to his “America first” trade policies. In upcoming days Mr. Trump also signalled his intention to start renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with partners Canada and Mexico to secure a better deal for American workers. Among other proposals, Mr. Trump has restated his threat to impose a border tax on imports from US companies which outsource jobs overseas. The withdrawal of the US from the TPP also raises questions about the future of yet another mega regional trade agreement, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP) currently under negotiation between the US and the EU.

Mr. Trump will be meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday to discuss, inter alia, UK-US post-Brexit trade relations. Unlike his predecessor, President Trump has indicated that the UK will not be at the back of the queue for a free trade agreement with the US. However, in contrast to Mr. Trump’s neo-mercantilist views, Mrs. May has enthusiastically reiterated her support of free trade and free markets, indicating last week her intention for the UK to become a global leader of free trade.

President Trump has indicated he will seek to negotiate bilateral agreements with those individual TPP countries with which the US does not yet have an FTA. With regard to the future of TPP, the views of the other countries are mixed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe previously indicated that TPP without the US was meaningless. Malaysia indicated it would go the bilateral route while Australia indicated it would try to salvage the agreement. A major geopolitical concern raised by foreign policy analysts about the US’ withdrawal is that it misses an opportunity for the US to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, leaving an opening for China which was not a party to TPP. However, negotiations on RCEP, to which China is party and seen as a rival to TPP, have also been slow.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

What may a Trump presidency mean for future US-Caribbean relations?

Alicia Nicholls

In what for many pollsters and poll watchers was an astounding turn of events reminiscent of the June 23rd Brexit vote decision in the United Kingdom (UK), the American people have chosen the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump, to become their 45th president. Mr. Trump, a billionaire real estate developer who has never held elective office, beat veteran campaigner and Washington establishment favourite, former Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton despite late polls predicting a slim victory for Mrs. Clinton.  In addition to winning the White House, the Republicans have also retained control of both houses of Congress.

The merits and demerits of a Trump presidency will dominate news headlines for the next few days and perhaps years. However, we in the Caribbean must now pivot from our fascination with what was a surprising conclusion to the US Presidential Election campaign of 2016, to consider what will be the possible implications of a Trump presidency for future US-Caribbean relations.

Many may wonder why we in the Caribbean, like other parts of the world, so keenly follow the US presidential elections. After all, unlike Mexico, Syria, Russia and Iran, Caribbean countries did not feature in any of the major foreign or economic policy discussions, and the region has lost much of its geostrategic importance to Washington since the end of the Cold War.

The reasons why the US elections matter to us are simple. Firstly, the US is a major trading partner for many Caribbean countries, a provider of foreign aid and a foreign policy ally. Secondly, for several Caribbean countries, the US is also the largest source market for tourist arrivals.  Thirdly, the US is home to the largest population of persons of Caribbean descent living outside of the Caribbean.  As such, any change in US foreign, economic and commercial policy will have implications for the small open economies of the Caribbean region.

Trade Policy

A central plank of now President-elect Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is to “negotiate fair trade deals that create American jobs, increase American wages, and reduce America’s trade deficit”.It is expected that there will be dramatic changes to US trade policy under a Trump Presidency towards a more zero-sum, protectionist approach. This will have implications for US-Caribbean trade relations, which have not always been smooth.

Outside of the Dominican Republic which is a party to the US-Central America and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), Caribbean States do not have a free trade agreement with the US. Most Anglophone Caribbean countries, however, benefit from unilateral access to the US market for most goods under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a legacy from the Reagan era. The preferences extended under CBERA are non-reciprocal; Caribbean countries do not have to confer reciprocal access to US originating goods. They are also unilateral which means preferences can also be unilaterally revoked by the US. Some Caribbean countries also benefit from the United States’ Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), another unilateral, non-reciprocal regime.

It is unclear what would be the future of these unilateral non-reciprocal preference schemes under a Trump presidency. Perhaps one saving grace is that these programmes are generally seen to be a benefit to US manufacturing and jobs, and the region has a trade deficit with the US. According to the Report to Congress released in December 2015, “[t]he value of U.S. exports to CBERA beneficiary countries grew 2.5 percent in 2014, exceeding the growth rate for total global U.S. exports, which grew 2.1 percent”.

On a more sober note, US-Caribbean trade relations have encountered many bumps over the years, including the famous bananas wars in which the US and Latin American countries successfully challenged the European Union’s preference regime for bananas from African, Caribbean & Pacific (ACP) countries in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

More recently, Antigua & Barbuda challenged the US’ restriction on the cross-border supply of online gambling services from Antigua & Barbuda in the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement mechanism. After the US lost its appeal and failed to comply with the Appellate Body’s ruling, Antigua & Barbuda was authorised to retaliate through the suspension of concessions and obligations to the United States in respect of intellectual property rights. However, to this day Antigua & Barbuda has not received any compensation from the US following the rulings.

There has been little progress on either the US-Antigua gambling dispute or on the rum dispute which Caribbean states have been hesitant to take to the WTO. It remains to be seen whether any progress will be made under a President Trump whose only stated concern in regards to trade relations is for “American jobs, wages and trade deficit” and who has hinted at withdrawing the US from the WTO.

Immigration and Race Relations

Much of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been against Mexicans, as exemplified by his promise to build a wall along the US’ border with Mexico. The Caribbean diaspora in the US, however, may be impacted by his immigration policies as well. In an interesting article on Caribbean migration to the US, Zong and Batalova noted that “the United States is the top destination for Caribbean emigrants, accounting for more than 60 percent of the 6 million Caribbean emigrants worldwide”.

Immigration has for quite some time been a touchy subject in US-Caribbean relations, mainly in regards to the mass deportation of those Caribbean nationals who have committed crimes in the US. The main argument advanced by Caribbean governments is that many of the deportees were socialised in the US and are sent back to the Caribbean after serving time in US prisons as hardened criminals. They also argue that these deportees have little to no cultural or familial ties to the Caribbean which makes their integration into Caribbean society difficult. Such deportations have been blamed by regional politicians for the increase in criminality in the region.

Mr. Trump’s 10-point plan for immigration, includes not only increasing the deportation of criminals, but establishing immigration controls, ensuring that open jobs are offered to American workers first, banning immigration from certain countries, ending sanctuary cities and reforming legal migration. Not only will those living illegally be affected, but there may be implications for that vast majority of Caribbean immigrants living legally and making a solid contribution to US society. He has spoken of a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the US”. What does that mean for the Muslim minority in some Caribbean countries who may wish to visit or migrate to the US?

A less discussed issue is that of Trump’s possible impact on race relations in the United States. Most Caribbean immigrants are either mainly black or Latino so this dovetails with the immigration issue. Mr. Trump has had a checkered past on race issues, including, inter alia, calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, supporting the Birther Movement which sought to discredit America’s first African-American president (President Obama) as a foreigner, and being prosecuted by the US Justice Department along with his father for refusing to rent to black tenants during his early years. To what extent can a Trump presidency, whose open endorsement by the KKK and other white nationalists raised concerns, begin to mend race relations? For instance, what will be his future policies on stop and frisk and on police brutality against minorities, particularly against African-American males?

Climate Change

Climate change is an existential issue for the world, and particularly for small island developing states in the Caribbean, which, despite their negligible contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, have been the most vulnerable to the adverse and deadly effects of climate change.  As I indicated in a previous article on this subject, the election of Mr. Trump, a climate change sceptic, will be weighing on the minds of officials at the climate talks in Marrakech, Morroco over the next weeks.

Mr. Trump, has famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and has gone as far as threatened to cancel the Paris Agreement. Although it would take about four years before the US can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in the intervening time President Trump can still undo the US’ progress on climate change action by overturning the executive actions President Obama has implemented to fight climate change, cancelling funding for clean energy initiatives, and reducing and eliminating aid to developing countries for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

It also means that there may be little to no US support for global climate change action, a frightening prospect if the international community is to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

Foreign Aid

According to a 2016 report “US Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: Recent Trends and FY2016 Appropriations”, since 1946, the LAC region has received more than $160 billion of assistance (in constant 2013 dollars. This aid has included assistance in fighting crime and drugs trafficking, as well as for climate change mitigation and adaptation.  However, foreign aid saw spending cuts under President Obama as the US sought to rein in its budget deficits.

Mr. Trump has not said much in his campaign plans on his views towards foreign aid, though one can conclude that his more inward looking policies would suggest that he will probably be in favour of less aid for the region if this is not in sync with his wider foreign policy goals. It will be left to be seen the extent to which the LAC region will continue to receive aid under a Trump presidency and what would be the aid priorities.

Withdrawal of Correspondent Banking

Indigenous banks in the Caribbean have been seeing the restriction or termination of correspondent banking relationships by international banks, many of which are US-based. Caribbean governments have been engaging in high-level advocacy and have targeted relevant US departments. There has so far been limited success. To what extent will Mr. Trump and his future Secretary State and Treasury Secretary be concerned with the problems of Caribbean economies which face exclusion from the global trade and financial system if this issue goes on unabated?

Cuba-US Relations

President Obama’s presidency saw a rapprochement in US-Cuba relations. Since the early 1960s, successive US governments have imposed an illegal economic, commercial and financial embargo on Cuba which is not only contrary to international law but has hindered the country’s economy development.  In December 2014 US Mr. Obama outlined a new direction to normalise Cuba-US relations. Efforts at normalisation since 2014 have included, inter alia, the removal of Cuba from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List in May 2015, the re-opening of embassies in July 2015 and the progressive relaxation of some sanctions.

The prospect of normalisation of US-Cuba relations appears bleak now as President-elect Trump has consistently supported the embargo against Cuba. However, it remains to be seen whether he will reverse some of the executive actions President Obama has made and whether he will impose additional sanctions.

So what does this mean for future US-Caribbean relations?

The American people have made their choice and while it may not have been an internationally popular one, what is done is done. What Caribbean leaders need to consider going forward is what will be the priorities for them in regards to their relations with the Trump White House. And how will they create constructive dialogue and meaningful action on issues such as the on-going gambling and rum trade disputes, security, deportations, correspondent banking and climate change?

It is no secret that since the end of the Cold War the Caribbean has lost much of its geostrategic significance to Washington. However, the geographic proximity of the Caribbean as the US’ “backyard” means that US-Caribbean cooperation remains crucial to US national security on issues of mutual interest such as drug enforcement, transnational organised crime, money laundering and terrorist financing. In June 2016  H.R. 4939 – United States-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016, a bi-partisan bill sponsored by New York Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat) passed without objection in the House and was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The objective of the law is “to increase engagement with the governments of the Caribbean region, the Caribbean diaspora community in the United States, and the private sector and civil society in both the United States and the Caribbean, and for other purposes”. What will be the future of this initiative?

What is clear is that there needs to be constructive dialogue and re-engagement with the US. How successful will this be under a Trump presidency is anyone’s guess. His campaign rhetoric appears to foreshadow a future US foreign policy that will be a lot more isolationist, inward-looking and protectionist than seen in recent times. With a Republican majority in Congress, Mr. Trump will likely have unfettered power to push through his agenda, however good or bad.

On the flip side, it is entirely possible that Mr. Trump may soften his stance on some of his most contentious issues. For instance, in his victory speech he adopted a more conciliatory tone both towards to his opponent Mrs. Clinton and towards the international community, stating “All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.” Another thing is that Mr. Trump’s policy proposals have been generally vague on specifics. There are many unknowns at this stage. We also have no idea as yet, besides speculation, on who will be the members of his cabinet, including key posts such as Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. It is also unclear where Mr. Trump stands on some issues with importance to the region, including on offshore financial centres and the withdrawal of correspondent banking.

While President-elect Trump’s campaign proposals and rhetoric give us much food for thought, there remains much uncertainty about what a Trump presidency may actually portend for the region. What is certain, however, is that there will likely be a new tone set for US-Caribbean relations going forward. Caribbean leaders will need to be pro-active, united and strategic as they seek to engage constructively with what will be at least a four-year Trump administration when Mr. Trump assumes office in January 2017.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.