Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Framework for U.S.-Latin America Relations?

By Eric Hershberg
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President Obama’s desire to move forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears likely to founder amidst Congressional resistance to granting him “fast-track” authority, but it does signal a noteworthy initiative by an administration eager to grow trade relations with some Latin American countries.  Originally formed by Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore in 2006, TPP is currently negotiating the accession of five new members, including the United States and Peru.  Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, and Japan are also considering joining.  U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez said last year that agreement on a framework for the United States to join TPP represents “a landmark accomplishment because it contains all of the elements of a modern trade accord.”  It eliminates all tariff and non-tariff trade barriers; takes a regional approach to promote development of production and supply chains; and eases regulatory red tape.  The White House’s senior official responsible for Latin America has also emphasized the importance of the Partnership.

The Administration for the most part has tried to sell the pact as a domestic economic issue – the argument being that more trade and harmonized regulations translate into more jobs – or as integral to a strategic focus on strengthening economic ties to the dynamic economies of Asia, rather than as a policy that has the potential to redefine economic relations with Latin America.  But lobbying on Capitol Hill has so far been ineffective, and Obama’s own Democratic Party has denied him the “fast-track authority” needed for an effective negotiation.  The Administration’s diplomatic strategy has not progressed smoothly either.  During Obama’s recent four-nation swing through Asia, he and Japanese Prime Minister Abe failed to sign an agreement widely seen as crucial for moving ahead with TPP.  Negotiators from all 12 TPP countries met in Vietnam last week, and – despite claims of progress – press reports generally suggest a gloomy prognosis for progress soon.

President Obama has made much of his “pivot” to Asia, and the push for TPP situates Latin America relations in Washington’s wider foreign policy agenda.  The emphasis on the TPP signals that liberalizing trade remains the core principle guiding U.S. thinking about economic relations in the hemisphere, in effect continuing a paradigm that has reigned for decades and that is embodied by proposals such as the now-abandoned Free Trade Area of the Americas.  Unable to secure broad South American buy-in for that U.S.-minted vision for economic cooperation, the administration seems to have settled on trying to work with a “coalition of the willing” comprised of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.  For governments elsewhere in the region, however, the not-so-particularly-new approach has elicited scant enthusiasm.  One could imagine ambitious proposals from Washington for hemispheric cooperation around energy, climate, infrastructure, technological innovation or even, eventually, labor market integration. But that would require visionary leadership, a commodity that is in strikingly short supply nowadays in the U.S. capital.  Rather than leading the articulation of a novel, shared agenda for a 21st century economic transformation of the Americas, Washington has chosen for now to repackage the last century’s prioritization of trade.

Brazil’s Protest: If You Get QE3, We Get Tariffs

Photo by “SqueakyMarmot” | Flickr | Creative Commons

For two years Brazilian voices have complained that U.S. policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing” have been damaging its economy.  Lax monetary policies in the U.S. and Japan are blamed for the high valuation of the Brazilian real, which further suppresses Brazil’s  languishing manufacturing sector.  Tensions escalated following the September 2012 announcement of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s third round of quantitative easing.  Now the debate has spilled over into discussions about Brazilian restrictions on trade.  As Finance Minister Guido Mantega warns of a “currency exchange war,” Brazil is increasing tariffs on U.S. goods and foresees the imposition of taxes on inflows of foreign capital, which further inflate the Real.  Writing in Folha de São Paulo, Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira argues that Brazil is acting in self-defense.  The tariffs Brazil is contemplating are by his account not protectionist but simply an effort to compensate for the unfair advantage that the U.S. seeks to achieve through its monetary policy.

The tension is spreading beyond Brazil, as currency appreciation is portrayed as a drag on manufacturing in much of South America.   In an interview with CNN, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera criticized “QE3,” asserting that “printing money” would not solve U.S. economic woes.  So far, Andean countries are responding by purchasing dollars and cautiously reducing interest rates, but the Brazilians, in particular, present protectionist measures as counter-cyclical tools of their own, necessitated by American attempts to “drive down” the dollar.

The Brazilian and South American claims may be overdrawn somewhat; many experts believe that overvaluation is primarily a consequence of Chinese demand for South American commodities and the decision by most Latin American countries to maintain high interest rates in order to forestall inflation.  But U.S. policies meant to boost job growth are indeed having unintended consequences in the hemisphere.  There has been little thought in the United States of the external implications of Fed policy—beyond a belief that a reinvigorated U.S. economy would be good news for everyone.  Brazil has been the first, and most vocal, challenger of a stance that always frowns on tariffs while presenting monetary policy as a purely domestic matter.  It is a bit much for Brazilians to expect that U.S. monetary policy should be crafted with an eye to its impact on the region, particularly when conventional fiscal policy measures are thwarted by Congressional dysfunction, but Washington should not be surprised when efforts to tamp down its currency – not unlike Chinese policies that Washington condemns  – are seen abroad as aggressive threats to competition.