Trade agreements

July 23, 2021

Carbon border adjustments: Getting real

Two proposals, half the detail. Two major economies made announcements around carbon border tariffs over the past few weeks. The European Commission finalised its proposal for its Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism which, at this stage, is slated to apply to steel, iron, fertiliser, cement and electricity. The US Democrats have outlined a budget proposal that will include a ‘polluter import fee’, with very few details. There are indications it will apply to fugitive methane emissions, signalling that it may be focused on energy.

What does this mean for Australian exporters? At this stage it’s not of major significance. Australia’s fertiliser exports tend to go to Asia; similarly iron and steel exports stay in the region or go to the US. The details will be significant to Australian companies going forward –  how the pricing works, and how any carbon price within the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) can dovetail with systems elsewhere.

A leaky level playing field. There are, however, longer term risks. CBAM is designed to prevent ‘carbon leakage’ from the EU ETS, which EU stakeholders say is undermining European manufacturing and making it less competitive. CBAM is part of Brussels’ bigger play to ‘level the playing field’ on environmental regulation. The proposal still has some way to go through the European Parliament and Council of the EU.

Negotiations between the three arms of the EU could give rise to regulatory creep. For example, European farmers will likely pay higher prices for fertiliser. Will they therefore demand that agriculture is somehow incorporated into CBAM to level the playing field further? This could have an impact on Australian exports.

Supply chain reactions. On the other hand, Australia may find itself much closer to an Asia-oriented value chain. Global steel supply chains are already fragmented between geographical areas; carbon pricing – and a broader reluctance among Asian governments to support it – may fragment them further.

Companies may reorient their supply chains accordingly to supply markets with the lowest costs; many firms already excel in this form of regulatory arbitrage. A good example was how companies pivoted in the face of Trump’s China tariffs. Sure, carbon tariffs aren’t Trump tariffs, but they are still a cost to be borne by businesses.

Businesses simply need to factor this emerging policy area as part of a ‘new trade reality’ – along with greater scrutiny on labour and human rights in supply chains.

Or perhaps another way. How about liberalising trade rather than taxing it? An example is APEC’s approach to reducing barriers to environmental goods. This has recently been emphasised by Australian trade minister Dan Tehan. Is it more effective in terms of environmental outcomes? That’s hard to say, but it’s definitely more politically palatable for global trading partners.   

A US Indo-Pacific digital trade deal?

An Indo-Pacific starter. The Biden administration is reportedly considering plans for a digital trade deal with economies in the region. This follows comments by Kurt Campbell, US National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, that the US is “quietly exploring” potential trade initiatives with Indo Pacific countries. The administration has made clear its priorities are focused on domestic recovery, vaccines and addressing China – analysts point out that smaller, sectoral trade deals are more prospective than engagement in multilateral or regional FTAs at this point.

Take your FTA pick. A digital trade deal could build on outcomes of the various digital agreements in the region. The USMCA and CPTPP agreements both cover digital trade. The more recent Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) involving Singapore, Chile and New Zealand provides a broader framework, as does the Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement (SADEA). APEC has a Cross Border Privacy Regime for data flows (CBPR). Australia’s FTA with the US – the 2005 AUSFTA – does not include provisions on digital trade, and is yet to be updated.

No TPA needed? Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a necessary legislative precondition for a full FTA, expired in July (see below), making any US FTAs requiring more than executive authority almost impossible. Could a US digital trade deal be negotiated as a ‘trade executive agreement’ (agreements between executive branch agencies and other governments that have some relationship to trade but are not subject to congressional review like an international treaty)?

Recent research reveals the US has in place more than 1,200 ‘trade executive agreements’ with 130 countries that create binding commitments, build on or clarify FTAs and serve as the foundation for later binding arrangements. In recent years there have moves by the US towards more executive trade deals, including the US/China Phase One agreement, as well as arrangements with India and Brazil. The 2019 US Japan Digital Trade Agreement was passed as an executive agreement.

More Asia Pacific digital deals on the way. In June Vietnam and Singapore agreed to set up a joint technical working group on Digital Partnership, examining the potential for developing a bilateral agreement. Singapore is also negotiating digital agreements with Korea and the UK. Disciplines governing digital trade are also likely to be considered as part of ‘upgrades’ of older bilateral agreements with trading partners in the region – for example the review of the AANZFTA between Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN.

Good timing. Cross border data restrictions aren’t going away. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation points that the number of countries restricting the flow of data across borders has nearly doubled over the past four years, rising from 67 barriers across 35 countries in 2017 to 144 restrictions in 67 countries. More measures are under consideration – a good time for digital economy agreements that support open rules for data flows, create mechanisms for cooperation and encourage regulatory interoperability.

In brief

FDI falls as screening policies, tax uncertainty rises. A new report of Global Trade Alert reveals that foreign direct investment screening mechanisms have proliferated in recent years, becoming less conducive to foreign direct investment. It ‘contends that if multinational enterprises are to play a greater role then policy needs to be reset to restore the commercial viability of FDI.’ The Tax Foundation notes uncertainty for global FDI remains high, with the ongoing international tax negotiations at the OECD being a contributing factor. The recently released annual UN World Investment Report shows that foreign direct investment (FDI) fell by a third in 2020 compared to 2019, well below the low point reached after the global financial crisis a decade ago.

TPA expires, will it return? Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the legislation that enables the US to sign new trade agreements following a straight up-or-down vote from Congress, has expired. Politico points out that there is no sign that the Biden administration intends to ask Congress for a renewal anytime soon. USTR Tai views TPA as a longer-term objective – the focus is on setting a broad agenda and addressing issues with respect to China. The last time the legislation expired, in 2007, it was eight years before Congress renewed it.  TPA’s expiry is not good news for the UK’s ongoing negotiations with the US, now effectively on hold, nor any potential future US trade agreements outside of the executive branch.

China takes Australia to WTO. China has responded to Australia’s WTO complaint about Chinese anti-dumping tariffs on wine by bringing its own challenge to Australia’s anti-dumping duties on Chinese wind towers, railway wheels and steel sinks. The move comes as Wine Australia reports that China’s punitive duties have resulted in a 45% reduction in exports for the year to June 2021.

Thailand progresses ‘mini’ trade deals. Thailand signed an MoU in July for a ‘mini trade deal’ with Kofu City in central Japan. It is advancing similar deals to ‘form deeper trade partnerships’ with Hainan, China, Telangana, India and Gyeonggi province in Korea. Alongside this, Thailand is seeking to move ahead with broader bilateral FTA negotiations with the EU, as well as EFTA, the EAEU and the UK. It is still considering accession to the CPTPP, and exploring the potential for an agreement with Hong Kong.

US and Mexico resolve first USMCA labor complaint. The US and Mexico have reached a resolution in their first labor dispute under USMCA over alleged violations of auto worker protections in Mexico. A remediation plan was negotiated under the agreement’s ‘rapid-response mechanism.’ As noted by Politico, the plan is a first for USTR, and it allows the governments to avoid a labor dispute settlement panel that could have resulted in harsher penalties.

The UK and Australia have just concluded an ‘in principle’ agreement for a free trade agreement. Efforts by UK farmers lobbying the Johnson government not to give Australia greater market access for red meat seem to have been overcome.

June 18, 2021

UK-Australia FTA: first in the region, positive in principle

The UK and Australia have just concluded an ‘in principle’ agreement for a free trade agreement. Efforts by UK farmers lobbying the Johnson government not to give Australia greater market access for red meat seem to have been overcome.

Beef, wine and cars. The details of the agreement that have been released so far are largely positive for Australian export interests. Access for Australian agricultural exports is a particular bright spot.

According to a statement released by Trade Minister Dan Tehan, Australian beef will be granted a 35,000-tonne tariff-free quote from year one, increasing to 110,000 tonnes over ten years. After a five-year period in which the quota will be replaced by a rising safeguard threshold, Australian beef will have unlimited duty-free access to the UK. Sheepmeat, wine, sugar and dairy products will also benefit from significant duty-free access.

In return, UK FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), alcohol and auto exporters appear set to improve their access to the Australian market.

Work and holidays. There is less detail about investment and services trade commitments, although Minister Tehan did refer to mutual recognition of qualifications. An increase from 30 to 35 in the maximum eligible age for working holiday-makers was also announced, as well as an extension of the maximum duration of that visa from two to three years. Additional working visas will also be made available for agricultural workers.

Cheers, Australia. Many analysts were surprised at the quantum of access that Australia has reportedly been granted under the agreement. These outcomes likely reflect the relatively strong position that Australian negotiators have had since the beginning of the negotiations. Politically and economically, the UK needs this agreement more than Australia does. Australia already has multiple agreements with China, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN members, as well as with the US. The UK has only ‘continuity’ agreements (that carry over the terms of the EU agreements it was part of) at this stage. Australia completing a low-ambition deal would have had a larger political cost – with the Australian farm sector – than no deal at all. However, no deal would have been a massive blow to UK trade minister Elizabeth Truss and the Johnson government’s trade credibility.

A step toward CPTPP. The UK has formally commenced the accession process for joining CPTPP, and that will be much more difficult than an agreement with Australia. Although continuity agreements exist with a number of CPTPP parties, the agreement with Australia will be a good template for the UK as it moves toward negotiations with a broader range of parties. That may be more of a challenge. The UK’s prospective FTA partners expect more than a political agreement; they want genuine liberalisation. Seasoned negotiators throughout Asia-Pacific will be just as willing as their Australian counterparts to dig in until they get real improvements – or walk away from the table.

Both the AU/UK agreement and CPTPP interest underline the UK’s politically driven approach to trade right now, promising a ‘global Britain’ to its voters.

A step away from US/UK FTA. On the other side of the globe, the UK and US are holding off on further negotiations on their trade deal until after the US mid-terms next year. This may work for both sides. If the UK politics of a deal with Australia are difficult, they would be almost unmanageable with the US, land of “chlorinated chicken”.

It is expected that the details of the Australia/UK agreement released so far – and therefore approved for circulation by both sides – will survive the final stages of negotiations. It is hoped the agreement can be finalised and signed soon.

APEC’s 2021 rebalancing act

APEC’s hopes for a less challenging year (after Chile’s cancellation of Leaders’ Week in 2019, and the pandemic hitting in 2020), are looking up with New Zealand as host in 2021.

Welcome statement. The statement from the APEC Trade Ministers’ meeting last week is exactly the kind of sentiment that many trade policy observers have been looking for since the pandemic hit. It plumped for using open trade as means of fighting the pandemic, reinforcing the importance of the rules-based trading system with a particular emphasis on the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference later this year, as well as implementation of the WTO trade facilitation agreement and advances in digital trade.

FTAAP is back? But the statement also included something many had forgotten: FTAAP (the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific). First conceived in the heady and idealistic trade-liberalising era of the Bush administration in 2006, FTAAP was eventually endorsed by APEC leaders in 2016. Its ambition is high: a free trade area comprising all APEC economies (yes, that includes both China and the US), with greater liberalisation than the WTO Doha round.

The statement notes the call from the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) to “ensure FTAAP remains the organising principle for regional economic integration”; this isn’t a commitment towards anything new, but at least there is some idealism left in a world of trade policy that is increasingly dominated by geopolitics. And it’s still a good idea.

US supply chains and regional trade

The Biden administration has released its ‘100-day Review’ into ‘Building Resilient Supply Chains’. The report was commissioned earlier this year with a focus on four key product groups: semiconductors, large-capacity batteries, critical minerals and pharmaceuticals.

Domestic threats, international opportunities. The report identifies potential threats to supply chains: insufficient domestic capacity, ‘misaligned’ incentives in the private sector, industrial policies among competitors, concentration in some supply chains, and lack of international coordination. It contains two recommendations clearly relevant to international trade policy.

The first is “Strengthen international trade rules, including trade enforcement mechanisms.” The key mechanism is the establishment of a ‘trade strike force’ under USTR. However, it’s not entirely clear what the trade strike force is or what powers it will be given.

The second is to “Work with allies and partners to decrease vulnerabilities in the global supply chains.” The report recommends a new ‘Presidential Forum’ to cover supply chain issues as well as working through the Quad and G7. It also recommends using the US Development Finance Corporation (its development lending institution) to support supply chain resilience.

Implications for Australia. One of the recommendations also states that the ‘strike force’ will examine how existing US trade agreements as well as future trade agreements and measures can help strengthen the United States and collective supply chain resilience. Precisely what this might look like isn’t clear.

However, the overall message is one of having the US’ strategic trading partners move closer into its orbit. This, as Australia and many other countries in the region have shown, is easier said than done. The US had a significant policy opportunity to encourage greater cooperation in its supply chains with strategic partners during the Obama administration; back then it was called the Trans Pacific Partnership, now the CPTPP.

Article Three in the media

Jon Berry spoke with ABC News on the UK-Australia FTA, in particular Australian beef exports to the UK going forward;

Kristen Bondietti was a panel member for Global Victoria’s virtual trade mission on Vietnam;

Khalil Manaf Hegarty presented at a webinar with Indonesian think-tank INDEF on agricultural commodity certification in Indonesia and ASEAN.

April 24, 2021

The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) has published Article Three’s submission on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP), which is currently being considered by the Committee.

Our key take on the agreement is as follows:

RCEP will benefit Australia by helping to strengthen regional value chains, encourage trade diversification, build stronger relationships with trading partners and provide a baseline to improve trading conditions across the region.

Australia already has FTAs with all RCEP members that have reduced many tariff barriers on goods. However, there is still more to be done to reduce non-tariff measures and barriers to services and investment.

RCEP commits Australia’s trading partners in ASEAN and North Asia to improvements in these areas and promises to play a broader role in supporting growth through trade. This is particularly important in the current trade environment.

Australia should proceed to ratify the agreement and encourage other members to do so such that it can enter into force in 2022.

Read the full submission here.

December 11, 2020

Article Three is proud to have collaborated with the Asia Society, RMIT and the APEC Study Centre on A Path to Vietnam: Opportunities and Market Insights for Australian Business.

Australia and Viet Nam are natural economic partners. Viet Nam is a dynamic and rapidly-growing market, and one of Australia’s fastest growing trading partnerships. Viet Nam’s economic growth over three decades, large and mobile talent pool, consistent economic reform, embrace of digital economy and skilled COVID-19 management have put the country in good shape.

The time for Australian businesses to consider Viet Nam as the next phase of their growth strategy is now.

Asia Society Australia and The Australian APEC Study Centre at RMIT University, supported by the Victorian Government, have developed the ‘A Path to Viet Nam’ report to raise awareness of business opportunities and show pathways for Australian companies to succeed in Viet Nam.

Key takeaways

  • Viet Nam is a perfect economic partner for Australia, as both nations have complimentary economic systems and seek diversification of their trading partnerships, amidst weakening global economy and geopolitical tensions
  • Viet Nam has emerged from the COVID-19 crisis better than most countries in the world and has maintained positive economic growth as a result of proactive management of the pandemic
  • Australia and Viet Nam have elevated their government-to-government relationship to the highest level creating a favourable environment for businesses in both nations to engage and generate commercial outcomes
  • Viet Nam has a unique and fast-paced market, and a vastly different political system requiring businesses to have comprehensive, long-term and tailored entry strategies, based on local knowledge, competitive advantage and due diligence
  • Significant opportunities for Australian businesses exist in agriculture, mining and resources, education and ICT services, and Industry 4.0
  • Australian businesses can leverage a thriving bilateral eco-system of relationships to support their efforts in Viet Nam

The report provides Australian business with market insights on the products, services and sectors that offer the most viable opportunities in Viet Nam. It provides recommendations for entry strategies, practical advice and case studies of successful Australian ventures in Viet Nam.

Read the full report here.

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