ARKANSAS, Sept 7 (Future Headlines)- The economic relationship between the United States and Mexico, two neighboring nations with deeply intertwined economies, is facing new challenges. President Joe Biden’s administration has taken steps to escalate a trade dispute with Mexico over protectionist policies impacting U.S. energy companies. This dispute centers on Mexico’s rollback of reforms aimed at opening its power and oil markets to foreign competitors, which has disrupted the investments of major U.S. oil and renewable energy companies. In response, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is requesting affidavits from these companies to build a case for an independent dispute settlement panel under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

  • The trade dispute unfolds

Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, took steps to reverse reforms that were designed to open Mexico’s power and oil markets to foreign competition. These reforms were initially aimed at creating a more open and competitive energy sector. However, they have faced resistance from Obrador’s administration, which favors state-owned entities like Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE). As a result, U.S. energy and power companies, including major players like Chevron and Marathon Petroleum, have encountered difficulties in obtaining permits and applications to expand their operations in Mexico.

Complaints from these companies have escalated, alleging that decisions favoring Pemex and CFE have disrupted their investments in Mexico. These allegations have prompted the USTR to consider seeking an independent dispute settlement panel under the USMCA trade pact. If the U.S. moves forward with this panel, it could potentially impose retaliatory tariffs on Mexican goods worth billions of dollars if Mexico fails to address the dispute’s concerns.

  • Escalating trade tensions

The escalating trade tensions between the U.S. and Mexico come at a time when both nations have seen significant economic integration. In the first half of 2023, Mexico surpassed Canada and China to become the largest U.S. goods trading partner, with total trade reaching $396.6 billion for that period. This growth in trade is driven by Mexico’s expanding automotive production and U.S. companies shifting supply chains closer to home. Furthermore, Mexico had a substantial goods trade surplus with the United States in 2022, amounting to $130.5 billion. This surplus has been on an upward trajectory since 2017, when former President Donald Trump initiated the renegotiation of NAFTA.

  • The implications for President Biden

The trade dispute over protectionist policies in Mexico presents a significant challenge for President Biden. While the White House had initially hoped to avoid escalating tensions with Mexico to secure cooperation on immigration and drug trafficking issues, progress in negotiations has been slow. As the U.S. seeks to address these challenges, the trade dispute raises the stakes for President Biden. Critics from the Republican Party may seize upon his handling of this dispute as part of their campaign strategy in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Therefore, President Biden faces a delicate balancing act as he manages trade relations with Mexico in the midst of political and economic complexities.

  • Dispute resolution mechanism

By seeking a dispute settlement panel under the USMCA, the USTR is opting for a form of litigation created in the 2020 revamp of the former North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the USMCA’s dispute settlement rules, a five-person panel is convened within 30 days, with panelists chosen from a pre-approved roster of experts. The chair of the panel is jointly selected, and each side chooses two panelists from the other country. This panel reviews testimony and written submissions, with its initial report due 150 days after its formation. This dispute settlement mechanism allows for a structured and impartial review of the trade dispute, offering a clear path to resolution. It is a departure from the earlier, more negotiation-focused approach, signaling that the U.S. is pursuing a more formal legal recourse.

  • The role of Obrador

One of the significant obstacles to resolving these disputes is Mexico’s President, Obrador. Obrador has strongly advocated for Mexico’s energy and agricultural sectors, seeing them as essential components of the nation’s identity and sovereignty. His administration’s actions to roll back reforms in the energy sector and impose restrictions on genetically modified (GMO) corn imports have triggered these trade disputes with the U.S.

The dispute over GMO corn imports further underscores Obrador’s stance on issues related to national identity. Washington argues that Mexico’s ban on GMO corn for human and animal consumption violates its obligations under the USMCA. This trade dispute adds another layer of complexity to the already challenging negotiations between the two nations.

While the United States seeks to protect the interests of its energy companies and address trade imbalances, Mexico is concerned with safeguarding its national identity and maintaining control over key sectors. This fundamental clash of priorities underscores the complexity of the dispute and the challenges it poses for resolution. Furthermore, the escalation of this trade dispute adds another layer of uncertainty to an already intricate global trade landscape. As the U.S. and Mexico navigate this complex terrain, they will need to consider the broader geopolitical implications. The outcome of this dispute could influence how other nations perceive and engage with the United States and Mexico, potentially impacting diplomatic relations and trade agreements.

In the coming months, the actions and responses of both governments will be closely watched by stakeholders in various industries, including energy, agriculture, and manufacturing. The decisions made during this period could have a lasting impact on trade dynamics in the North American region and beyond. As the Biden administration moves forward with its request for affidavits and the potential formation of a dispute settlement panel, the trade dispute with Mexico remains a high-stakes issue. It underscores the intricate interplay between economic interests, political priorities, and national identity, highlighting the challenges of managing trade relations in an interconnected world. The path to resolution will require careful diplomacy, strategic negotiation, and a commitment to finding common ground amidst divergent perspectives.

Reporting by Sarah White