Washington, United States – US President Joe Biden and the leaders of Canada and Mexico played up their close ties Thursday in the first North American regional summit since 2016, but tensions on trade and immigration lurked in the background.
This was the first so-called “Three Amigos” summit since Donald Trump’s 2017 arrival in the White House.
Following the game plan he has used with European and Asian allies, Biden is keen to restore normalcy to the three-way partnership among the giant partners, who form the USMCA free-trade bloc.
“We can meet all the challenges if we just take the time to speak with one another, by working together,” Biden said, while Trudeau noted the three countries’ “extremely strong ties.”
Earlier, in a one-on-one meeting with Trudeau, Biden said US-Canada ties are “one of the easiest relationships that we have.”
And Lopez Obrador, in a separate bilateral meeting, hailed what he said was Biden’s approach, saying “our relations must always be based on respect.”
Lopez Obrador said he was grateful that Mexico is no longer “seen as the backyard of the United States.”
In addition to feuding publicly with Trudeau, Trump threatened to abandon the free trade agreement and imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel.
He also declared a national emergency on the Mexican border and used incendiary language about illegal immigrants, although he ultimately forged a working partnership with Lopez Obrador.
But just because the tempestuous Trump presidency is over, that does not mean the issues he stirred have gone away.
In an echo of Trump’s “America first” ideology, Biden is trying to reinvigorate the struggling US industrial base, especially in the rapidly emerging clean energy and electric vehicles market, which is causing friction with the neighbors.
Mexico and Canada are alarmed at Biden’s proposal for a tax credit encouraging US production of electric vehicles, like the powerful all-electric Hummer the president test drove during a visit to General Motor’s plant in Detroit on Wednesday.
Another sticking point is Biden’s “Buy American” policy for the federal government when it shops for its huge fleet of automobiles — something Canada says is undisguised protectionism.
“We are going to talk about that,” Biden said as he started his meeting with Trudeau.
White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher defended Biden, saying he had always campaigned on boosting union jobs and beyond that “there’s going to be ample opportunities” to work with Canada and Mexico on regional economic growth.
One regional problem where the White House is looking for cooperation is resolving crippling hiccups in the supply chain, a senior Biden administration official said.
And to the south, Mexico is still under pressure to help resolve the politically explosive immigration mess on the US southern border.
Where Trump turned the fight against illegal immigration into one of his most potent campaign messages, Biden has emphasized the need for a humane policy.
A senior administration official told reporters that the emphasis at Thursday’s trilateral meeting would be on regional solutions.
Noting that Mexico was itself turning into a major destination for illegal migrants, the official said the countries would aim to resolve the “root causes.”
Lopez Obrador turned the issue around, saying that the United States and Canada should open up to immigrants. “We should no longer restrict immigrants. In order to grow you need a workforce,” he said.