Obama administration claims progress on trade despite no new deals

The Obama administration claimed credit Monday for breaking down technical barriers to U.S. exports around the world even as an ambitious trans-Pacific trade deal remains a work in progress and an agreement with Europe announced in this year's State of the Union address is still far off.

President Obama set a goal three years ago of doubling U.S. exports and creating 2 million export jobs by 2015. The White House has yet to see a single new trade deal through to fruition, but a series of reports released this week show steady progress in breaking down barriers to trade under existing international agreements.

The president had hoped to wrap up the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks with 10 other countries last year, and conversations about a U.S.-European Union trade pact have barely begun. With that backdrop, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released three reports this week highlighting progress the administration has made in tackling technical barriers to trade. 

The three reports cover barriers to American exports of goods and services, foreign direct investment, and protection of intellectual property rights; sanitary and phytosanitary trade barriers that affect U.S. agricultural products; and technical barriers to trade that make it difficult for U.S. manufacturers to sell their wares abroad.

“The Obama Administration has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to opening markets for American products and services abroad – this translates into increased economic opportunities for U.S. workers and companies here at home,” Acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said in a statement accompanying the reports' release. 

“On behalf of America’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and service providers, we will continue to eliminate unwarranted barriers that obstruct the sale of high-quality 'Made-in-America' products overseas. And we will maintain our vigorous efforts to ensure a level playing field for U.S. goods and services in markets around the world.”

This year's National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers in particular highlighted concerns with so-called “localization barriers,” such as domestic procurement policies or South Korea's restrictions on storing customer information outside the country. The trade representative is currently leading an interagency effort to develop and execute a more strategic and coordinated approach to address the issue.

“In recent years, the United States has observed a growing trend among our trading partners to impose localization barriers to trade — measures designed to protect, favor, or stimulate domestic industries, service providers, or intellectual property at the expense of imported goods, services or foreign-owned or developed intellectual property,” the report said. “These measures may operate as disguised barriers to trade and unreasonably differentiate between domestic and foreign products, services, intellectual property, or suppliers.”

Under Obama, the agency has also begun to publish two more specialized reports.

This year's report on technical barriers to trade found that trade barriers in the form of product standards, testing requirements and other technical requirements are multiplying even as countries do away with tariffs and quotas. 

The new restrictions are hurting the ability of U.S. companies, farmers, ranchers and manufacturers to sell their products abroad.

“As tariff barriers to industrial and agricultural trade have fallen, standards-related measures of this kind have emerged as a key concern,” the report concludes. 

Finally, this year's report on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures — the rules and procedures that governments use to ensure that foods and beverages are safe to consume and to protect animals and plants from pests and diseases — notes the administration's success in tackling a number of barriers to trade. 

These include the removal of specific SPS barriers in El Salvador, Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico for exports of U.S. beef; working with Taiwan to implement a maximum residue limit for beef containing ractopamine, a drug used as a feed additive; successfully petitioning the European Union to allow the use of a pathogen reduction treatment on beef; resolving barriers for U.S. rough (paddy) rice and poultry products for export to Colombia; improving the import procedures for U.S. cherries entering South Korea; and gaining access for certain U.S. pears into China.

“Many SPS measures are fully justified, but too often governments cloak discriminatory and protectionist trade measures in the guise of ensuring human, animal, or plant safety,” the report said. 

“These SPS barriers not only harm U.S. farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, workers, and their families, they also deprive consumers around the world of access to high-quality American food and agricultural goods."