A Trade Policy for President Obama’s Second Term

President Obama’s trade policy in his first term included working with Congress to pass free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, continuing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and expanding it to include Canada and Mexico. Moreover, Obama set a goal of doubling exports by 2014, established a trade enforcement council and increased WTO dispute settlement to enforce existing international trade laws. He also effectively managed the complex U.S.-China economic relationship, getting China to more effectively protect U.S. intellectual property rights and ending China’s so-called indigenous innovation policies. During the next four years the president should build on this progress and develop a comprehensive trade policy that does three things: 1) builds greater cooperation with China 2) pursues comprehensive and high quality free trade agreements; and 3) articulates a vision for moving the WTO Doha Round forward.

The U.S.-China Trade Relationship: The size of U.S.-China trade makes building this bilateral relationship key to achieving Obama’s goal of doubling exports and for making progress on broader U.S. goals on an international level. But the size and growing trade deficit – which in 2011 was $295 billion and is on track to be even larger in 2012 – feeds concerns about unfair Chinese business practices and American economic and manufacturing decline, which ultimately makes advancing the economic relationship with China rather difficult.

The challenge for Obama is that the size of trade deficit is unlikely going to change much in the next four years because of China’s role in global supply chains as the major assembly point for goods made from components sourced from South East Asia, Europe, the U.S. and Japan. In this light, the U.S.-China trade deficit is the accumulation of declining U.S. trade deficits with countries like Japan, South Korea and Malaysia as businesses in these countries have shifted production to China. This shift to more efficient and cost-effective production conditions has led to significant decreases in the prices of these imported goods to American businesses and consumers.

One way to reduce the bilateral trade deficit would be to address China’s undervalued currency. An undervalued renminbi (RMB) has the effect of making Chinese imports cheaper and American exports to China more expensive. Therefore a revaluation would reduce the deficit by increasing U.S. exports to China and reducing imports from China. The dispute about China’s undervalued currency has also negatively affected broader U.S. trade goals, such as concluding the WTO Doha Round since the undervalued RMB caused developing country to resist further reductions in tariffs due to concerns about competition from cheap Chinese imports. That said, the net economic impacts of China’s undervalued currency for the U.S. are unclear as a lower RMB also leads to cheaper goods for American consumers and businesses. While an appreciating RMB will likely lead businesses to relocate to lower cost countries and thereby reduce the U.S.-China trade deficit, it will not lead to a decrease in the overall U.S. trade deficit.

But reducing these U.S. concerns about the RMB and the trade deficit, other areas for cooperation with China like clean energy should open up. President Obama supports developing green energy in the U.S. and China’s 12th Five Year Plan includes ambitious domestic renewable energy goals. These goals could be complimentary with the U.S. specializing in high-end green technologies and services and China manufacturing components like solar photovoltaic cells. A liberalized trading regime in green energy would underpin this outcome, leading to the most efficient allocation of resources and reducing the costs of renewable energy in both countries. But concerns in the U.S. about Chinese subsidies for renewable energy and a U.S. focus on developing green manufacturing capacity has already led to WTO litigation. Both countries should instead use the trading system to support this common goal and build on the recent agreement in APEC to reduce tariffs on a range of environmental goods by expanding the list of environmental goods and addressing other trade barriers affecting green energy goods and services.

Free Trade Agreements: Currently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the only significant free trade agreement (FTA) the U.S. is pursuing and completing the negotiations should certainly be a priority for the next Obama administration. The main outstanding issue is whether Japan will join the current negotiations. While Japan’s participation would slow down the talks, it would secure Japan’s support for the trade and investment rules that the U.S. wants for the Asia-Pacific region and provide economic heft to the TPP. All this would increase the incentive for other countries to join the TPP and create further momentum toward an Asia-Pacific FTA, reinforcing Obama’s broader strategic “pivot” towards Asia.

A big potential new FTA is with the EU – the U.S.’s largest bilateral trading partner. Most tariffs between the U.S. and the EU are already low, so improving market access will require addressing so-called behind the border regulatory measures such as on genetically modified organisms, vehicle safety standards and pharmaceutical health and safety laws. Prior experience addressing trade barriers in the Transatlantic Economic Council suggests that making progress on these issues will not be easy. However a U.S.-EU FTA would certainly deliver economic benefits for the U.S. and European Union.

Multilateral Trade: President Obama can be expected to continue to efforts to conclude parts of the WTO Doha Round, focusing on a services agreement, expansion of the international technology agreement and trade facilitation. However, only multilateral trade liberalization will deliver the largest economic benefits for the U.S. and globally, and the U.S. – as the necessary leader and largest beneficiary of the multilateral trading system – should develop a strategy for concluding the WTO Doha Round during the next four years.