Washington – US President Joe Biden and the leaders of Canada and Mexico played up their close ties on 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 Biden predecessor 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 nations that form the USMCA free trade bloc, and the leaders committed afterward to hold a follow-on summit next year in Mexico.
“We can meet all the challenges if we just take the time to speak with one another, by working together,” Biden said, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin 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 Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in a separate bilateral meeting, hailed 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 a General Motors plant Wednesday in Detroit.
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 and a deeper look at the causes behind the growing flow of migrants.
Despite lingering disputes, the trio reaffirmed the strength of the regional relationship.
“Together as North America we stand strong, and look to better build back our communities, our infrastructure, and our shared future as integrated partners,” Biden, Lopez Obrador and Trudeau said in a joint statement.
“We will continue our dialogue at the highest level next year in Mexico for NALS 2022.”
After the summit, the White House said Lopez Obrador met with Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden’s point person on immigration issues, and “agreed to continue working together to address the root causes of migration from Central America and the need for a regional approach to migration in the Western Hemisphere.”
In his own public remarks during the summit, Lopez Obrador turned the issue around, saying 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.
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