Biden’s early days show new tack on trade, but little chance of China tariff removal

Published on
April 23, 2021

As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden approaches its one-hundredth day in charge, its early actions are laying the groundwork for the country’s stance on trade.

Speaking during a National Fisheries Institute Global Seafood Market Conference webinar covering the first 100 days of the Biden administration, NFI Vice President for Government Affairs Robert DeHaan predicted the new administration will likely take a different tack than that of former U.S. President Donald Trump. SeafoodSource is providing exclusive coverage of the GSMC webinar series, which will be providing market-focused content throughout 2021.

“The Trump administration pace of trade action, as many of you have experienced personally in your day-to-day world … was frenetic,” DeHaan said. “Not one agreement after another, but one action after another.”

The Biden administration will likely not continue that same rapid pace, but it will have to deal with the policies that the previous administration put into place.

“What isn’t finished is the policy processes that in many cases the Trump administration set in motion, and this administration is either going to continue those things or at least consider continuing those things,” DeHaan said.

A key part of that decision is choosing the direction that U.S. trade is going to take, which is under some tension between domestic and foreign interests.

“One of those is, tension between the idea of what trade is supposed to accomplish for the nation and its workers, and what the administration wants to do in terms of reorienting policy around multilateralism and building consensus with our allies,” DeHaan said. “There’s some tension in trying to do both.”

There are Biden officials who are “very vocal rhetorically about free trade, but the question is whether they will generate results … to generate free trade, in fact,” DeHaan said.

An overarching concern for the seafood industry is the section 301 tariffs that the Trump administration implemented on certain goods from China. Some of those tariffs impacted U.S.-harvested seafood – and the resulting retaliatory tariffs from China hit yet more.

According to DeHaan, those tariffs are unlikely to go anywhere soon.

“Wholesale rollback of those tariffs is extremely unlikely, reinstitution of some form of exclusion process – though still unlikely – is comparatively at least the better bet,” he said.

U.S. trade interests have fallen into a more long-term trend away from trade liberalization and trade agreements.

“The momentum for market liberalization and agreements in support of it has slowed significantly,” he said. “The trend fairly clearly, in Washington at least, is that the Trade Promotion Authority [TPA] and trade agreements are not popular.”

Recently sworn-in United States Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai’s early interviews indicate that reluctance toward a liberalized trade agenda, DeHaan said, and that there’s little intention on her part to move on the section 301 tariffs on China.

“She’s not in any hurry to move on liberalizing agreements or take off the tariffs,” DeHaan said. “Her refusal to act on the Section 301 China challenge is a signal of where she’s going to go on the broader agenda.”

The Biden administration, DeHaan said, appears to be “playing it where it lies” in terms of how to handle the trade policy of the previous administration, with some reluctance to undoing some of the trade items the Trump administration implemented.

Politically, DeHaan said, the Biden administration has less obligation to tackle anything regarding trade than the previous administration did. While Trump was elected with a mandate to take action on trade, Biden was not.

“They don’t have a mandate to do something really big,” DeHaan said. “Then, if you layer on top of that that you have to deal with the virus, it has the effect of deprioritizing the issue area as a whole.”

One issue that has received increased attention – both at the tail-end of the Trump administration and the early days of the Biden administration – is tackling labor issues, such as forced labor, via trade. Labor-related trade enforcement has been escalating in recent years, and importation exports have predicted that the government will continue to step up enforcement on imports.

Partly tied to that is the potential expansion of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to other species – a move that has been floated in the relevant departments. According to DeHaan, NFI’s members oppose any expansion of the program.

“Our membership opposes any expansion of SIMP. The program has not proven its mettle in any way, and it generates job-killing compliance costs and headaches for our companies,” DeHaan said. “There are far better ways to address IUU fishing.  We look forward to continuing to make our case against this badly flawed regulation.”

If the program were expanded, however, DeHaan said the industry would have time to react.

“If, regrettably, an expansion were to occur, that would take several years, and it would require formal full agency rulemaking to execute,” he said. “Affected companies – including, by the way, many U.S. domestic harvesters – would have two to three years to plan.”  

Photo courtesy of archna nautiyal/Shutterstock

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