Cameroon

U.S. commences two investigations into Vietnam under Sec. 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended — on currency and on use of illegally harvested timber

On October 2, 2020, the U.S. Trade Representative announced the launch of two investigations on Vietnam’s acts, policies and practices. One involves whether Vietnam through the State Bank of Vietnam has intervened to undervalue the Vietnamese currency. The other investigation looks at whether the timber used by Vietnam to generate furniture and other products is from illegally harvested or trade timber. The USTR statement from October 2 is copied below:

“At the direction of President Donald J. Trump, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is initiating an investigation addressing two significant issues with respect to Vietnam. USTR will investigate Vietnam’s
acts, policies, and practices related to the import and use of timber that is illegally harvested or traded, and will investigate Vietnam’s acts, policies, and practices that may contribute to the undervaluation of its currency and the resultant harm caused to U.S. commerce. USTR will conduct the investigation under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. As part of its investigation on currency undervaluation, USTR will consult with the Department of the Treasury as to issues of currency valuation and exchange rate policy.

“United States Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said, ‘President Trump is firmly committed to combatting unfair trade practices that harm America’s workers, businesses, farmers, and ranchers. Using illegal timber in wood products exported to the U.S. market harms the environment and is unfair to U.S. workers and businesses who follow the rules by using legally harvested timber. In addition, unfair currency practices can harm U.S. workers and businesses that compete with Vietnamese products that may be artificially lower-priced because of currency undervaluation. We will carefully review the results of the investigation and determine what, if any, actions it may be appropriate to take.’

“USTR will issue two separate Federal Register notices next week that will provide details of the investigation and information on how members of the public can provide their views through written submissions.”

https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/october/ustr-initiates-vietnam-section-301-investigation.

The two Federal Register notices were published on October 8. Initiation of Section 301 Investigation: Vietnam’s Acts, Policies, and Practices Related to Currency Valuation, 85 Fed. Reg. 63637-68 (Oct. 8, 2020); Initiation of Section 301 Investigation : Vietnam’s Acts, Policies, and Practices Related to the Import and Use of Illegal Timber, 85 Fed. Reg. 63,639-70 (Oct. 8, 2020).

In each notice of initiation, USTR reviews the concerns leading to the 301 investigation, indicates that consultations with Vietnam have been requested, provides a timeline for the public to submit written comments and indicates that because of uncertainties from COVID-19, USTR is not scheduling a public hearing but “will provide further information in a subsequent notice if it will hold a hearing”. Public comments in both investigations are due on November 12, 2020.

The currency investigation flows from the following concerns identified in the notice of initiation.

“The Government of Vietnam, through the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV), tightly manages the value of its currency—the dong. The SBV’s management of Vietnam’s currency is closely tied to the U.S. dollar. Available analysis indicates that Vietnam’s currency has been undervalued over the past three years. Specifically, analysis indicates that the dong was undervalued on a real effective basis by approximately 7 percent in 2017 and by approximately 8.4 percent in 2018. Furthermore, analysis indicates that the dong’s real effective exchange rate was undervalued in 2019 as well.

“Available evidence also indicates that the Government of Vietnam, through the SBV, actively intervened in the exchange market, which contributed to
the dong’s undervaluation in 2019. Specifically, the evidence indicates that
in 2019, the SBV undertook net purchases of foreign exchange totaling
approximately $22 billion, which had the effect of undervaluing the dong’s
exchange rate with the U.S. dollar during that year. Analysis suggests that
Vietnam’s action on the exchange rate in 2019 caused the average nominal
bilateral exchange rate against the dollar over the year, 23,224 dong per dollar, to be undervalued by approximately 1,090 dong per dollar relative to the level consistent the equilibrium real effective exchange rate.” 84 FR 63637-38.

The public is asked to provide written comments on six issues:

“• Whether Vietnam’s currency is undervalued, and the level of the
undervaluation.

“• Vietnam’s acts, policies, or practices that contribute to undervaluation of its currency.

“• The extent to which Vietnam’s acts, policies, or practices contribute to the
undervaluation.

“• Whether Vietnam’s acts, policies and practices are unreasonable or discriminatory.

“• The nature and level of burden or restriction on U.S. commerce caused by the undervaluation of Vietnam’s currency.

“• The determinations required under section 304 of the Trade Act, including what action, if any, should be taken.” 85 FR at 63638.

In the timber investigation, the background information which led to the initiation of the investigation is described as follows:

“Vietnam is one of the world’s largest exporters of wood products, including
to the United States. In 2019, Vietnam exported to the United States more than $3.7 billion of wooden furniture. To supply the timber inputs needed for its wood products manufacturing sector, Vietnam relies on imports of timber harvested in other countries. Available evidence suggests that a significant portion of that imported timber was illegally harvested or traded (illegal timber). Some of that timber may be from species listed under the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“Evidence indicates that much of the timber imported by Vietnam was
harvested against the laws of the source country. Reports indicate that a
significant amount of the timber exported from Cambodia to Vietnam was harvested on protected lands, such as wildlife sanctuaries, or outside of and
therefore in violation of legal timber concessions. Cambodia nevertheless
remains a significant source of Vietnam’s timber imports. Similarly, timber sourced from other countries, such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), may have been harvested against those countries’ laws.

“In addition, Vietnamese timber imports may be traded illegally. For
example, it appears that most timber exported from Cambodia to Vietnam crosses the border in violation of Cambodia’s log export ban. In addition, aspects of the importation and processing of this timber also may violate Vietnam’s domestic law and be inconsistent with CITES.” 85 FR 63639.

Public comments are sought on the following six issues:

“• The extent to which Vietnamese producers, including producers of
wooden furniture, use illegal timber.

“• The extent to which products of Vietnam made from illegal timber,
including wooden furniture, are imported into the United States.

“• Vietnam’s acts, policies, or practices relating to the import and use
of illegal timber.

“• The nature and level of the burden or restriction on U.S. commerce caused by Vietnam’s import and use of illegal timber.

“• The determinations required under section 304 of the Trade Act, including what action, if any, should be taken.” 85 FR 63639.

USTR must make a determination within twelve months of the initiation of the two investigations. USTR can seek agreement with Vietnam to address the U.S. concerns.

The investigations are being started roughly one month before the November 3 U.S. elections. Obviously, if President Trump is reelected, the investigations will continue. If former Vice President Biden is elected, it is unclear what his Administration would do with the pending investigations (if USTR has not completed them by January 20, 2021)., although presumably the investigations would be continued and completed.

The two Federal Register notices are embedded below.

2020-22271

2020-22270

Food security and COVID-19 — how World Trade Organization Members could fill a pressing need

In 2020 as the world has been dealing with the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Trade Organization has focused attention on keeping markets open by urging Members to provide notifications of trade restrictive and trade liberalizing measures taken not just on medical goods but also on agricultural products. The G20 countries and various groups of WTO Members have made commitments to impose restrictions only under limited circumstances and only temporarily, consistent with WTO obligations. Some Members have urged countries to agree not to impose export restraints on agricultural goods to limit worsening challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. On agricultural export restrictions, a number of countries have applied some restrictions despite information that global food supplies are sufficient which should make restrictions unnecessary. The attention paid to the issue by the WTO and its Members have limited the number of countries engaged in agricultural export restraints which is a positive development.

With the steps many countries have taken to limit the spread of the COVID-19, there has been enormous economic pain incurred by most countires, with tens of millions of people in countries temporarily unemployed, schools closed, food distribution disrupted with the closure of restaurants which constitute a large part of food shipped from processing plants and farms.

The UN, World Bank and others have projected huge increases in the number of people pushed into extreme poverty because of the effects flowing from the pandemic. Extreme poverty brings with it food security issues as people suffering extreme poverty don’t have the means to procure basic food needs.

The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) has long been involved in helping address food security needs around the world. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the WFP is mobilizing to provide assistance to some 138 million people in 83 countries. With most countries occupied with dealing with the needs of their own populations, countries and private citizens have been slow to respond to the humanitarian challenges facing so many around the world. The WFP has appealed for US$4.9 billion to let them perform their stepped up function during COVID-19 through the end of 2020. As of August 6, they had received only 9 percent of what they need, $US440 million.

The WFP during the pandemic has been involved in facilitating services by many NGOs and international organizations. For example, “Over 16,500 health and humanitarian personnel from 288 organizations have now been transported to destinations throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States countries by WFP’s air passenger service since its launch on 1 May. 53 destinations are now being served, with approximately 2,500 passengers using WFP’s service per week.” WFP, COVID-19, Level 3 Emergency, External Situation Report #12 (6 August 2020)(emphasis in original). The latest situation report is embedded below and reviews the wide array of services provided as well a review of some of the countries with acute needs. It also provides a link to contribute to the WFP.

WFP-0000118265

The External Situation Report indicates that there are 27 countries (based on an FAO-WFP hotspot analysis) which “are at risk of significant food security deterioration in the next six months”. (page 2). Countries at risk are Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Mali, the Niger, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and Bangladesh (total is 31, though Peru, Ecuador, Colombia appear to be at a lower level of risk based on coloration used on page 2). FAO – WFP early warning analsyis of acute food insecurity hotspots, https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000117706/download/.

Where is the food aid?

For many countries, agricultural production has remained reasonably strong but large volumes of agricultural products have been destroyed based on lack of domestic markets, typically flowing from the collapse of the restaurant trade and the challenges in redirecting product, packaging and labeling into retail channels. See, e.g., New York Times, April 11, 2020, Dumped Milk, Smashed Eggs, Plowed Vegetables: Food Waste of the Pandemic, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html.

At the same time, there have been huge increases in internal-country demand for help from food banks in some countries. See, e.g., for the United States: Feeding America, The first months of the food bank response to COVID, by the numbers, https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/first-months-food-bank-response-covid-numbers.

It would seem that coordinated action by major agricultural goods producers in the WTO with the WFP and other groups should be able to provide large quantities of agricultural goods to those in need globally in the remaining months of 2020, goods which might otherwise simply be destroyed.

Similarly, while all countries are financially stretched during the pandemic, helping WFP obtain the needed financial resources to provide a coordinated pledging event should be of interest to WTO Members and many of the multilateral organizations working on COVID responses, as well as the business community and the general public.

While the WTO has grappled with limiting/eliminating export subsidies for agricultural goods, the WTO has always recognized the need to maintain the flow of humanitarian need particularly in agricultural goods. Consider these paragraphs from the 2015 Nairobi Ministerial Conference Decision on Export Competition (WT/MIN(15)45, WT/L/980 (21 Dec. 2015) at 6-7):

“International Food Aid

“22. Members reaffirm their commitment to maintain an adequate level of international food aid, to take account of the interests of food aid recipients and to ensure that the disciplines contained hereafter do not unintentionally impede the delivery of food aid provided to deal with emergency situations. To meet the objective of preventing or minimizing commercial displacement, Members shall ensure that international food aid
is provided in full conformity with the disciplines specified in paragraphs 23 to 32, thereby contributing to the objective of preventing commercial displacement.

“23. Members shall ensure that all international food aid is:

“a. needs-driven;

“b. in fully grant form;

“c. not tied directly or indirectly to commercial exports of agricultural products or other goods and services;

“d. not linked to the market development objectives of donor Members;
and that

“e. agricultural products provided as international food aid shall not be re-exported in any form, except where the agricultural products were not permitted entry into the recipient country, the agricultural products were determined inappropriate or no longer needed for the purpose for which they were received in the recipient country, or re-exportation is necessary for logistical reasons to expedite the provision of food aid for another country in an emergency situation. Any reexportation in accordance with this subparagraph shall be conducted in a manner that does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities in the countries to which the food aid is re-exported.

“24. The provision of food aid shall take into account local market conditions of the same or substitute products. Members shall refrain from providing in-kind international food aid in situations where this would be reasonably foreseen to cause an adverse effect on local13 or regional production of the same or substitute products. In addition, Members shall ensure that international food aid does not unduly impact established, functioning commercial markets of agricultural commodities.

“25. Where Members provide exclusively cash-based food aid, they are encouraged to continue to do so. Other Members are encouraged to provide cash-based or in-kind international food aid in emergency situations, protracted crises (as defined by the FAO14), or non-emergency development/capacity building food assistance environments where recipient countries or recognized international humanitarian/food entities, such as the United Nations, have requested food assistance.

“26. Members are also encouraged to seek to increasingly procure international food aid from local or regional sources to the extent possible, provided that the availability and prices of basic foodstuffs in these markets are not unduly compromised.

“27. Members shall monetize international food aid only where there is a demonstrable need for monetization for the purpose of transport and delivery of the food assistance, or the monetization of international food aid is used to redress short and/or long term food deficit requirements or insufficient agricultural production situations which give rise to chronic hunger and malnutrition in least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.15

“28. Local or regional market analysis shall be completed before monetization occurs for all monetized international food aid, including consideration of the recipient country’s nutritional needs, local United Nations Agencies’ market data and normal import and consumption levels of the commodity to be monetized, and consistent with Food Assistance Convention reporting. Independent third party commercial or non-profit
entities will be employed to monetize in-kind international food aid to ensure open market competition for the sale of in-kind international food aid.

“29. In employing these independent third party commercial or non-profit entities for the purposes of the preceding paragraph, Members shall ensure that such entities minimize or eliminate disruptions to the local or regional markets, which may include impacts on production, when international food aid is monetized. They shall ensure that the sale of commodities for food assistance purposes is conducted in a transparent, competitive and open process and through a public tender.16

“30. Members commit to allowing maximum flexibility to provide for all types of international food aid in order to maintain needed levels while making efforts to move toward more untied cash-based international food aid in accordance with the Food Assistance Convention.

“31. Members recognize the role of government in decision-making on international food aid in their jurisdictions. Members recognize that the government of a recipient country of international food aid can opt out of the usage of monetized international food aid.

“32. Members agree to review the provisions on international food aid contained in the preceding paragraphs within the regular Committee on Agriculture monitoring of the implementation of the Marrakesh Ministerial Decision of April 1994 on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least-developed and net food-importing developing countries.

“13 The term ‘local’ may be understood to mean at the national or subnational level.

“14 FAO defines protracted crises as follows: ‘Protracted crises refer to situations in which a significant portion of a population is facing a heightened risk of death, disease, and breakdown of their livelihoods.’

“15 Belize, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and Suriname shall also have access to this provision.

“16 In the instance where it is not feasible to complete a sale through a public tender, a negotiated sale can be used.”

It is believed that the current WTO provisions on food aid should not pose hurdles to countries providing in kind aid where there are needed food products that can be exported during the pandemic. If that is not the case, then the WTO Members should agree to a temporary waiver of relevant restrictions to permit food aid during the pandemic.

There has been much discussion within the G20, WTO, WHO and other groups that collective action on the medical front is critical to see that medical goods, vaccines, are therapeutics are available equitably and at affordable prices. What one hasn’t seen is the same focus on ensuring that the world’ populations have access to food equitably and at affordable prices. During the pandemic, WTO Members have the opportunity to work together to see that food is not wasted and that food aid is supplemented to the extent possible to alleviate the unique challenges to food security presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Presidential Proclamation 9974 of December 26, 2019 – contains changes to countries eligible for aspects of Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, implements U.S. duty reduction commitments from U.S.-Japan trade agreement and other matters

On December 30, 2019, Presidential Proclamation 9974 was published in the U.S. Federal Register. 84 Fed. Reg. 72,187-72,211. The proclamation addresses a number of trade issues, including:

(1) removing Cameron from beneficial tariff treatment under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (“AGOA”), 19 U.S.C. 2466a, effective January 1, 2020 [see 84 FR 72,187, paragraphs 1-4];

(2) finding that Niger, the Central African Republic, and The Gambia are not eligible for certain preferential access on textiles and apparel under 19 U.S.C. 3721(a) for failure to establish “effective visa systems and related customs procedures” to minimize shipment of nonqualified goods, although Niger and Guinea-Biseau were found to qualify under 19 U.S.C. 3721(c) as lesser developed sub-Suharan countries [see 84 FR 72,187, paragraphs 4-6];

(3) extends through the close of December 31 2020, duty-free access of specified quantities of certain agricultural products (list of products is contained in Annex I to the Proclamation) [see 84 FR 72,187-72,188, paragraphs 7-14 and 84 FR 72, 192, Annex I];

(4) takes actions to implement U.S. obligations undertaken with Japan in the U.S.-Japan trade agreement [see 84 FR 72,188-72,189, paragraphs 15-18 and 84 FR 72,193-72,208, Annexes II and III];

(5) modifications to the tariff schedules in connection with the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement [see 84 FR 72,189-72,190, paragraphs 19-15 and 84 FR 72,209-72,211, Annex IV].

After reviewing the issues and bases for designated actions, the Presidential Proclamation then lays out the actions being implemented by proclamation. 84 FR 72,190-72,211 (including Annexes). Proclamation 9974 is attached below.

12-26-2019-Presidential-Proclamation-to-take-Certain-Actions-under-the-AGOA-and-for-Other-Purposes

The significant trade issue for the United States is obviously implementing the U.S.-Japan trade agreement on tariff reductions and Japan’s participation in the TRQ on beef. As reviewed in prior posts (December 10 and October 26, 2019), the U.S.-Japan trade agreements affect a relatively small amount of U.S. trade with Japan and Japanese trade with the U.S., appear to be largely based on the U.S. desire to obtain parity for U.S. agricultural producers with CPTPP members following the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP agreement and establishing a strong agreement on digital trade with a trading partner with similar high standards as existing U.S. standards. The big question for U.S.companies and workers and their Japanese counterparts is whether either country has the current political bandwidth to put in place an FTA vs. the small market liberalization agreement and digital trade agreement achieved to date.

Turning to the actions on individual Sub-Saharan countries, the importance is almost certainly greater for the African countries than for the U.S. Specifically, for the individual African countries who are losing certain AGOA benefits or finding themselves now entitled, trade flows are relatively minor from a U.S. perspective; from the African country perspecitive, the importance may be significantly greater. For example, the United States in 2018 had imported $63 million of merchandise from Cameroon duty free under AGOA. This was out of total US imports from Cameroon of $212 million ($72 million were otherwise duty-free). U.S. imports from the other Sub-Saharan countries in 2018-2019 have been significantly smaller. Nonetheless, duty-free access remains important for all of these countries going forward.

The extension of the market access for Israeli agricultural products for another year has been occurring annually since the original agreement’s term expired. With all that is on the table for the Trump Administration, it is not clear if the 2004 agreement will be renegotiated in 2020 or simply rolled over for another year at the end of 2020.

Finally, the modifications to the tariff schedule for the US-Chile FTA seem to be largely technical in nature.

With the U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement to be signed on January 15 (and expected to go into effect 30 days later) and with the USMCA awaiting Senate passage of implementing legislation, 2020 could see some significant reduction of barriers with China and the implementation of USMCA (assuming Canadian passage). But the Presidential Proclamation 9974 helped start 2020 with a modest trade liberalization agreement with Japan and the tweaking of a number of smaller agreements or country participation in parts of AGOA.