Yo, Dude, Wassup? Part I

People used to refer to the end of August as either the dog days of summer or the summer doldrums, although I don’t think the dogs liked the heat any more than we did. People were often away, and not much was happening. That made it a good time to reflect on the two-thirds of the year that had gone by and to take a look at what was coming up. These days we seem to find ourselves in a never-ending 24/7 news cycle with something new every day to distract us—the latest Trump outrage, price at the pump, or whack-a-mole supply chain shortage, plus the war in Ukraine, the anniversary of the Afghanistan pullout, and on and on. All that puts us in reactive mode and discourages calm reflection.

This week and next I want to break that chain a bit and take a look at what we can expect in trade the rest of this year. (I’ve already done plenty of reflecting on the past and will doubtless do it again soon.) That means looking at both the executive and legislative branches. The judicial branch is also not short of trade-related work, but I’ll save that for another occasion. This week I will take on the executive branch, saving Congress for next week.

It comes as no surprise that a lot of trade policy actions are impelled by meetings. The president, or the U.S. trade representative, is going somewhere to meet with somebody, so naturally there has to be something to announce so the meeting doesn’t look like a failure. Meetings are action-forcing events that compel a search for “deliverables”—something the president can take credit for that will presumably benefit Americans.

Coming up this fall there are a lot of meetings, many of them in or related to Asia. Ambassador Katherine Tai kicks things off September 8­–9 with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) ministerial meeting in Los Angeles. That is expected to produce a ministerial declaration that will include a lot of the usual vague aspirational language about building a new trading system but hopefully will also include commitments by the 14 parties on which pillars they intend to negotiate. The administration has been predicting most of them will join all four pillars, and that appears to be likely. That will be a good step forward, but not all that important. The story of trade negotiations is that who starts doesn’t matter; it’s who finishes that makes the difference, and there is a long way to go to the IPEF finish line. If we are lucky, the ministerial declaration will also reveal more details about exactly what is going to be negotiated and will provide a schedule of the talks, but don’t hold your breath for either of those.

Following that, we will see the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit and the G20 meeting,  to be held in Indonesia this year. President Biden is expected to attend those, although the G20 meeting poses a dilemma since both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have indicated they are coming, as is Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who the Indonesians invited as a guest. If nothing else, it will be fun to watch the diplomatic minuet as Biden attempts to embrace Zelensky, avoid Putin, and have an actual conversation with Xi, as well as to see who meets with Zelensky and who snubs him. Expect a lot of words, possibly some fireworks, but little of substance as it hard to see that group agreeing on anything right now.

The APEC Summit in Bangkok will be less dramatic, but people will be watching closely to see what the United States signals is its goals when it chairs APEC in 2023. Although APEC membership is much bigger than IPEF’s, there is some expectation that the 2023 summit will be the action-forcing event that produces an IPEF agreement on at least three of the pillars. (Ambassador Tai has indicated she expects the trade pillar to take longer than that.)

Changing continents, the third meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC) is expected at some point this fall in the United States. Date and location have not been announced yet. Despite skepticism that the United States and European Union could ever agree on anything economic, the TTC has thus far actually made progress, at least on sanctions and export controls, impelled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That was an impressive accomplishment under difficult circumstances, for which the Biden administration deserves a lot of credit. Coming up, it will be interesting to see whether that cooperation can be duplicated in complicated areas like climate and decarbonization and digital trade that are also urgent but not linked to something as immediate as war.

There will also no doubt be other meetings below the presidential level not yet announced with Taiwan, Kenya, India, and the United Kingdom on possible bilateral deals, and with Latin American nations participating in the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, which President Biden announced at the Summit of the Americas on June 8. Whether any of these get across the finish line or if they will simply be a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” remains to be seen.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.     

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