Partners erecting barriers: US

Emad Mekay

The Bush administration is warning it might act against trading partners that continue to impose barriers on US goods and services, but the Democratic opposition calls the threat a bluff. In its annual ‘National Trade Estimate (NTE) Report on Foreign Trade Barriers’, the administration warns that trade constraints limit commercial opportunities for US businesses and also undermine any possible gains to developing countries from liberalised global trade. The 2004 NTE includes a list of “unfair trade practices” used to block US exports of goods, services and farm products. The report covers 58 major trading partners in each region of the world. On the list are such barriers as tariffs, import licensing, environmental measures, refusal to accept US manufacturers’ self-certification that they conform to foreign product standards, ‘buy national’ policies and closed bidding systems. The US itself is widely criticised for unfairly subsidising its farmers and for not opening its markets to exporters, particularly from developing countries, a move the World Bank says is a sure way to help end poverty and to put millions of impoverished farmers in the developing South back to business. Opposition Democrats here also criticised the administration for doing little to counter the findings of the report, saying the NTE is proof of officials’ continuing failure to act against unfair trading practices.

On Thursday the Democrats wrote a letter to President Bush urging him to take instant measures to remove the “unfair trade barriers” standing in the way of US exports. The letter urges the administration to direct the USTR to kick-start immediate talks with five key U.S. trading partners — China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and India — and to file in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) within 60 days cases against seven other countries if negotiations with them do not resolve existing barriers. The National Association of Manufacturers, the country’s largest industrial trade association, sided with the Democrats, urging Bush to fight for equal treatment in the trade arena. The administration argues it has a solid enforcement record, including WTO rulings against: Canada’s export subsidies on dairy products; India’s restrictions on US exports of auto assemblies; and an agreement with Argentina resolving many of the issues raised in a dispute over aspects of the Latin American nation’s intellectual property regime. More recently, Washington received a favourable dispute ruling from the WTO against Japanese barriers to apple imports and favourable preliminary findings against Mexico’s telecommunications regime. But in a teleconference, US trade officials said they prefer negotiating and consulting to filing cases at the WTO as a way of solving trade disputes.

Washington has completed negotiations on agreements with Morocco, Australia, and four Central American countries. It is also negotiating free trade agreements (FTAs) with the Southern African Customs Union (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland) and is working to bring the Dominican Republic into the recent Central American FTA. Washington has also announced it intends to begin talks with Thailand, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama. Talks on a hemispheric-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) stalled after the latest meeting last November in Miami, particularly over U.S. refusal to give up its support to farmers. But the Democrats argue that simply signing a trade agreement and moving on to negotiate the next one is not adequate. “To restore credibility to the trading system, agreements have to be enforced,” said their letter to Bush. — IPS