Biden’s gambit for the Americas needs work


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THE good news is U.S. President Joe Biden has finally decided to pay attention to what is happening in the Americas. The bad news is it is probably too little, too late to make much of a difference.

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THE good news is U.S. President Joe Biden has finally decided to pay attention to what is happening in the Americas. The bad news is it is probably too little, too late to make much of a difference.

In late January, the U.S. State Department held meetings with participating country ministers to advance Biden’s Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP). As a State Department missive explained: “The Americas Partnership charts a path forward to tackle economic inequality, foster regional economic integration and good jobs, and restore faith in democracy by delivering for working people across the region.”

Partner countries include Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Dominican Republic, Panama, Barbados, Ecuador and Uruguay. The initiative is also open to additional countries signing on to this regional framework.

Overall, the APEP “is a framework for regional co-operation to foster regional competitiveness, resilience, shared prosperity and inclusion and sustainable investment.”

For its part, the Canadian government made clear that it is “keen to deliver on its bold ideas to advance and deepen the shared visions of development, democracy and prosperity.” Ottawa’s statement went on to add: “This ambitious partnership will help integrate member country economies in a way that encourages human rights, economic development and transparent governance and eradicates forced labour.”

Mary Ng, Canada’s minister of international trade, welcomed the launch of the APEP and its “aim to complement free-trade agreements in the region through strengthening supply chain resilience, inclusive trade, multilateral investment and anti-corruption measures.”

But there is not much here in terms of advancing Canada’s overarching offensive and defensive interests. It looks more like the Trudeau government is trying to get on the good side of the Biden White House by putting its signature on a largely symbolic regional initiative.

Canada already has comprehensive free-trade agreements with nine of the 12 partner countries. And there is no major component of the APEP that reaches out to the Caribbean in any significant way — an area where Ottawa has historically exercised some political and economic clout.

There is no disputing the fact that concerns about a rising China — and its growing presence in the Americas — is a principal driver of both the Trudeau and Biden governments’ embrace of the APEP. China’s share of trade in the Americas has grown by leaps and bounds (with exports alone to China growing by almost 15 per cent since 2000) over the last 20 years or so.

Disappointingly for some, there is no signature trade pillar or any mention of signing a free-trade pact among the partner countries. In the absence of such an all-encompassing commercial/investment agreement, there is not likely to be much enthusiasm surrounding the APEP.

To the delight of some others, however, there is no reference whatsoever of revisiting the 1994 proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) — a hemispheric free-trade agreement stretching from Ellesmere Island, Canada, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Back then, fierce opposition came from countries such as Brazil, Argentina and even Mexico.

It’s also very telling that Argentina and Brazil, South America’s two leading economies, are absent from the list of signatory countries. It will be hard to take the APEP framework seriously with the non-participation of two of the region’s top political players.

Furthermore, more needs to be done under the APEP in terms of increasing capital investment in the region through the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In an effort to better tackle pressing humanitarian and financial needs in the region, participating countries should push for a sizable increase in the IDB’s overall capitalization.

Lastly, the APEP has precious little to say about hemispheric trade equity or increased social investment. It goes without saying that Biden is certainly not going to tout such hemispheric trade matters as the 2024 U.S. presidential election looms. He knows full well that he needs to win big in the Rust States — always leery of free-trade promises — if he hopes to be re-elected.

If the hope of the Biden team is to enhance and deepen the U.S. footprint in the hemisphere, the APEP is going to come up short. Curiously, there is no meaningful discussion of how to actually spur economic development and healthy societies in the Americas.

More to the point, the shift to the left in much of South and Central America only fortifies the distrust of any U.S.-led initiative in the Americas today.

Peter McKenna is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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