WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden used trilateral talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador Thursday to highlight the neighboring countries' close ties. But regional friction over issues like trade and immigration remained even as the U.S. president attempted to reset relations and revived the North America leaders' summit after a five-year gap.
Biden met face-to-face with Trudeau and López Obrador together for the first time since the leaders took office in what was the first summit between the three countries following four years of former President Donald Trump's fractious relationship with Mexico and Canada. Biden met separately with Trudeau and López Obrador before the three convene for talks. The two foreign leaders also met separately with Vice President Kamala Harris.
While Biden's election was heralded as a return to regional cooperation, his administration has continued several protectionist policies that have rankled the United States' neighbors, including "Buy America" initiatives outlined in the president's nearly $2 trillion social and climate spending plan and continuation of a Trump-era immigration policy that allows border agents to expel asylum-seekers to Mexico.
Tensions aside, the summit marked a chance for the three leaders to set a new agenda for North American health, economic and security cooperation in wake of the coronavirus pandemic, said Jason Marczak is the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and to tackle issues like climate change.
"It's a meeting that is going to be more about opportunities for collaboration and less about tensions because of the importance of deepening partnerships with Canada and Mexico to make North America more secure, more competitive and better able to face threats that, frankly, the heads of state have never come together to discuss because the world is very different from the last time this summit took place in 2016," Marczak said, referring to the pandemic.
"They need to focus on areas where there is common vision and where we can begin to further deepen cooperation because we don't have time for talking without action. The world demands it."
Here's a look at what was on the agenda for the three leaders:
Among the most pressing issues was the region's push to bringing an end to the pandemic that has upended the U.S., Mexican and Canadian economies, exacerbated supply chain issues and highlighted a lack of coordination at the U.S. northern and southern borders, according to Marczak.
During the Obama administration, the three countries put together a health security framework in 2012 known as the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza at the annual summit in order to prepare for a crisis like COVID-19. But the plan proved not to be sufficient and Thursday's meeting is a chance to apply the lessons learned over the last year and a half.
"We need to update what was put together nearly 10 years ago so that we as a region are better prepared the next time a pandemic comes around," Marczak said. "This is a pandemic that we're going to have to live with for quite some time and how we handle this is going to be imperative for cross-border flows for authorized people, cargo and other items critical to the U.S. economy."
The Biden administration faced mounting pressure after keeping in place border restrictions on nonessential travel that were enacted in March 2020. The White House finally lifted the closures earlier this month despite Canada lifting its own border restrictions this summer – a move that took an economic toll on border town economies reliant on cross-border traffic.
The U.S. also played a key role in helping Mexico and Canada inoculate their populations by loaning millions of doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine, which has been approved for use in many other countries but not in the U.S.
Canada and Mexico are expected to announce that they'll repay those loans by donating millions of doses to other countries in need of vaccines, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss details of the announcement.
Though the summit never took place white Trump was in office, the three countries signed a revamped trade deal in 2018 known as United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, which guarantees U.S. farmers greater access to Canada's agriculture, puts new e-commerce rules in place and dictates that a higher percentage of autos be made from parts manufactured in North America.
But Biden's sweeping infrastructure law, which he signed into law Monday, and his proposed social spending plan feature "Buy America" provisions that could undermine the USMCA agreement and cut out Canadian and Mexican companies from contracts potentially worth billions of dollars in government business.
The provision could be disruptive for the North American supply chain and could hurt Canada and Mexico according to Kristen Hopewell, Canada Research Chair in Global Policy at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Hopewell argued the provision doesn't serve either the U.S.'s economic nor strategic interests.
"The strength of the North American supply chain has really been critical to the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, and its ability to compete successfully with China in particular in global markets," Hopewell said.
She points to the U.S. auto industry, where some parts cross the borders between U.S., Canada and Mexico more than eight times during production and assembly processes.
"It's not just the U.S. auto industry, Canadian auto industry and Mexican auto industry but a North American auto industry," she said. "We should be trying to strengthen North American supply chains, not disrupting and weakening them through things like Buy America provisions."
Climate change and energy
The meeting comes on the heels of the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where negotiators struck a global climate deal aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. But the pledges fell short of limiting a planetary temperature rise to a key 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, a deal that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said did not go far enough and the world must "go into emergency mode."
Biden has made tackling climate change a key part of his agenda and made an ambitious pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and halve greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030.
Part of that strategy is to invest more in American electrical vehicle production and offer consumers incentives to buy electric vehicles made at a U.S. plant, a policy that Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said could undercut the USMCA agreement.
During Biden's meeting with Trudeau, he said the two would discuss their differences over the electric vehicle incentive.
Mexico, for its part, has also faced criticism over its current environmental policies, which experts say jeopardize U.S. and Canadian investments in petroleum, pipelines and renewables. López Obrador, who skipped the Glasgow climate conference, has raised eyebrows over his proposed constitutional reform to pursue federal control over half the electricity market.
López Obrador's energy reform proposal could trigger a series of events "that affects manufacturing and the bilateral relationship," said Ryan Berg, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Americas Program.
He noted the Mexican president didn't attend the Glasgow summit and the country's commitment to climate change could be a point of contention during Thursday's meetings, but expects the heads of state to paper over some of those tensions in order to find issues that unite the three countries.
And Biden is likely to face pressure from Trudeau over the Endbridge Line 5 pipeline that carries oil and gas to a huge portion of the Canadian economy. Biden has largely stayed out of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's battle to shut down the pipeline over concerns that a section of the pipeline could leak into the Great Lakes.
The move would effectively cut off more than half of their fuel supply and would have devastating effects on the American economy, Hopewell. said.
Though U.S. border closures to nonessential travel caused some friction with Canada and Mexico, the Biden administration is likely to face some criticism over its continuation of Trump-era policies like Title 42, which allows border agents to expel asylum seekers to Mexico and the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, which forced migrants at the southern border to stay in Mexico while they await an immigration hearing. The administration has since halted the program but plans to restart it because of a court order.
During their meeting, López Obrador praised Biden for treating Mexico with respect and the countries would continue to work together.
"From the first time we talked over the phone with the president already in office, he mentioned that we would not be seen as the backyard of the United States, and we are thankful for that," he said of Biden.
Ahead of the summit, Mexico's Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier called some of the Biden administration's protectionist policies "incomprehensible."
"The way I’ve seen them close themselves, they’ve closed themselves off and protected themselves, it’s incomprehensible from my perspective,” she told website Codigo Magenta Tuesday. “And this business of them apparently not wanting migration coming their way, they’re causing it by closing themselves off. And if they carry on, they’ll cause more of it."
Ariel Ruiz, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said while some of the polices have been unpopular, the summit provides an opportunity to move forward with a regional cooperation plan to address the root causes that lead migrants to leave their homes and make the treacherous journey to the U.S. southern border.
"The United States' expectation that Mexico should take higher responsibility on border control while the United States is only taking gradual steps to open up borders certainly presents some challenges," Ruiz said. "But we're a region and we need to share responsibility on migration."
The bigger question, according to Ruiz, is how the three countries plan to present their vision of tackling the root causes of migration at the Summit of Americas next summer.
"You can't address all these migration issues without Central American governments," he added.
The looming question of China
Hanging over the summit is Biden's quest to counter the rise of China and restoring the strength of North America as a region that can compete successfully with Beijing in global markets, according to Hopewell.
"The U.S. needs allies now more than ever," she said, noting that the size of the Chinese economy is estimated to surpass that of the U.S. within the next decade or so. "So the U.S. really enhances its power when it works together in partnership with allies and Canada and Mexico are two clear allies to work with on this.
The president, who met virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping for more than three hours on Monday, has framed U.S. policy toward Beijing as an ideological battle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Trudeau described China as "a very strong and present player on the global economy in the international community that we absolutely have to deal with," whether that's competing with Beijing on trade or working together on urgent issues like climate change.
China is the winning bipartisan argument in Washington's political climate, Berg said. Any significant legislation with regards to Mexico and Canada would probably need to include language about broader economic cooperation to counter China, he added.
"China's the big uniting factor that allows both parties to engage in conversations about trade, which have been made so difficult because of the shift in the current political climate and the tenor of that debate," Berg said.
"So if greater North American economic competitiveness and integration means less China - and that argument can be made successfully by the administration - then I think we've got a green line."
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY; David Agren
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US ties to Mexico and Canada tested at North America Leaders' Summit