Where does science end, and politics begin? For international-trade practitioners, the question always seems to be lurking in the background, especially when it comes to fights over seafood. Take the current widespread concerns over perceived health risks associated with Chinese seafood products like shrimp and catfish. When it comes to these two particular Chinese exports, politics never seems far away. This is because the politically influential American shrimp and catfish industries complain bitterly that they can’t compete on the proverbial “level playing field” with the Asian seafood items, which, they insist, are both unsafe to eat and “unfairly” priced too low. Because the issues are complex and involved unrelated areas of expertise, when questions are raised in the press as to whether Chinese imports are safe, it’s often difficult for the public to know if there are perhaps other agendas in play that go beyond food safety — agendas involving financial interests in keeping Chinese seafood out of U.S. markets. For that matter, how do reporters know?

Usually, they don’t, really. Reporters who cover food safety inhabit different worlds in newsrooms from their colleagues who are assigned to international trade beats, who in turn don’t pretend much in-depth knowledge of public health issues. Consequently, the dots that might show the connections between the two different journalistic turfs often aren’t connected. Consider a Dec.15 article that raised questions about the safety of Chinese shrimp that was written by Wall Street Journal reporter Jane Zhang, who diligently covers the food-safety beat. Ms. Zhang’s report was the usual Journal quality: solid, accurate, and fair, at least as far as it went. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Asia and other Dow Jones publications.) But some digging beyond the headline offers a rare glimpse beyond narrow health issues, into a world where science meets the politics.

In the present case, the story begins with a high-powered Washington lawyer who, wearing his hat as a former high-ranking official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has raised serious questions about possible safety risks associated with Chinese shrimp and other food and drug products in the Journal and other news organizations. But while readers would not know it — except, perhaps, a very small handful who follow trade politics closely — the same lawyer’s firm has been raking in money that most Americans would consider serious, by lobbying to curtail the imports of Chinese shrimp into the U.S. A coincidence? Perhaps. But further digging suggests still other coincidences.

The lawyer is Benjamin England, a former senior FDA health-inspection expert who is special counsel to Jones Walker Waechter Poitevent Carrere & Denegre. Jones Walker is Louisiana’s largest law firm, and is also a lobby powerhouse with an office in Washington, D.C. The firm is well-known for its affiliation with Robert Livingston, a former Republican chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee — and now, a prominent lobbyist for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, an eight-state coalition of domestic shrimp producers that is at war with China and other Asian and Latin American shrimp-exporting countries. The SSA’s fight with the foreigners is being waged on both fronts: anti-dumping, and health warnings. Mr. England says that he does not have any involvement with the shrimp trade litigation, and there is no reason not to take his statement at face value. Still, the coincidences are worth examining as they illustrate how, in Washington, D.C., the worlds of science and politics seem never too far apart.


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The EU’s New Clothes

posted by
on October 18, 2007

Old-style textile protectionism suddenly has a new look. With the European Commission’s announcement last week of a new “licensing” scheme for Chinese clothing exports, Brussels has woven a new knot into free trade, and consumers will bear the cost. Even worse, the European Union bureaucrats are only echoing what Washington has already pioneered; namely, innocuous-looking substitutes for classic trade quotas. And none of it will likely ease the burden on uncompetitive Western rag-makers in the long run.

At first blush, it all sounds reasonable. The European Commission’s new scheme, announced last Thursday, aims to slow down imports of big-ticket Chinese clothing exports like trousers, blouses and bras to give European companies a chance to upgrade their production systems and price competitiveness. The so-called “double checking” system will require European businesses to apply for import licenses issued by the EU’s 27 member countries. Beijing will also require Chinese exporters to get licenses.

The program will increase costs for the chosen European importers, who have to pay the EU’s 27 member countries for the licenses. It also puts enormous power in the hands of unelected EU bureaucrats, who can choose who gets a license and who doesn’t. The idea is to help uncompetitive garment makers from France and Italy to the Mediterranean rim, while penalizing major European garment manufacturers who source globally.

“This is clearly an administration burden, but business can live with it,” notes Emma Ormond, an international trade consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in London. The alternative, Ms. Ormond observes, was a continuation of the EU’s remaining clothing quotas on China that are scheduled to expire at the end of this year — which EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson refused to extend. That’s good, but ultimately a small comfort, given that Mr. Mandelson didn’t have the political capital to block the licensing scheme, which is a quota in another form.

None of this matters much for Chinese exporters, who can easily shift lower-end production to places like Bangladesh that are not subject to trade restraints. At the same time, the Chinese have incentives to restrict their own exports and focus on higher-end products. The resulting higher prices might not be good for European consumers, but that’s not China’s problem. Nor does the prospect that consumers will pay more for their T-shirts bother the Brussels-based European Apparel and Textile Organization (Euratex), which represents textile and apparel concerns in southern Europe. Euratex is happy to have the protection — for now, at least.

But happy for how long? The most recent available data shows that China — despite quota restrictions that will end in December — sold Europeans more than $28 billion worth of clothing and fabric in just the first nine months of last year, and remains the EU’s top supplier. When Brussels slapped tighter quotas on China to rein in surges of popular clothing lines — including undies — in the famous 2005 “bra war,” the Chinese more than made up their losses by exporting nearly 30% more brassieres to the Americans. When Europe curtailed Chinese imports of cotton bed linen in 2005, Egypt and Bangladesh found lucrative sales opportunities.

Had the EU only observed the results of U.S. protectionism against Vietnam, perhaps its textile gurus would’ve thought twice about “monitoring” cheap Asian exports. On Jan. 11 this year, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced that the U.S. would start “monitoring” Vietnamese-made clothing exports. In time, Commerce could build a database for stiff antidumping tariffs, should import “surges” occur and “hurt” U.S. producers. Mr. Gutierrez, a former CEO of Kellogg Co., presumably knew enough about global supply chains to understand that the monitoring would cause turmoil, as importers would have to adjust their business plans to the possibility of subsequent high duties.

But as in Brussels, politics trumped economics. The monitoring program was a favor to Republican senators Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The lawmakers demanded the import restraints in return for releasing holds on legislation aimed at clearing the path for Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. The president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, Cass Johnson, was happy to take the credit. Meanwhile, major American importers, manufacturers and retailers — household names like Levi Strauss & Co., Liz Claiborne and J.C. Penney — cried foul.

As well they should have. The globally sourced manufacturers had to scramble to rejig their sourcing lines. There’s uncertainty, too, about what will happen when the monitoring program expires in January 2009. The move also enraged the Vietnamese, who saw their U.S. exports for the targeted clothing lines decline sharply this year. U.S. cotton sweater imports from Vietnam are down 11%, various wool sweaters by 23-90%, and wool trousers, 95%. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s exports to Europe have risen sharply, benefiting European consumers, who can now buy cheaper duds.

Amid all this turmoil, the more enlightened parts of the American and European apparel industries are busy making money by embracing globalization, not shunning it. New York-based entrepreneur Wilbur Ross, for instance, bought out the bankrupt Burlington Industries, long a stalwart of the domestic textile lobby, formed the aptly named International Textile Group, and set up operations in China and Vietnam — and preserved U.S. jobs in the process.

Even some key members of the U.S. textile lobby who have pressed for restraints on Asian trade have also — without much fanfare, to be sure — been trying to adjust to global market realities. Unifi, Inc., a textile maker based in Greensboro, North Carolina, has announced a joint venture with a Chinese partner in Jiangsu province. And Glen Raven, Inc., another North Carolina fabric maker, proudly announced last month that it had built a new, 190,000 square-foot facility near Shanghai that will serve as the headquarters for Glen Raven Asia.

Europeans are also catching on. In the run-up to last week’s monitoring deal, Mr. Mandelson flew to Italy and urged manufacturers there “don’t be frightened” of competing with Asian suppliers. He has reason to think Europeans can compete: The venerable Ballantyne Cashmere, founded in Scotland in 1921, proudly points to its Scottish workers who make upscale sweaters from imported cashmere from China. “The world of Ballantyne,” the company proclaims on its Web site, “is now international.”

The textile lobbyists have had a long run. Protectionism has been woven into the American fabric since 1789, when the first Congress erected high tariffs to protect the domestic cotton crowd. In France in the 1600s, traffickers in imported calicoes risked public hanging, or a turn on the wheel. In more recent decades, the Europeans and Americans inflicted quota restrictions that limited economic growth in more than 40 mostly poor countries, while hitting consumers hard.

The beginning of the end came in 1995, when the rag trade was finally brought into the trading rules administered by the WTO. Textile quotas were phased out for WTO members in 2005, leaving only special cases like China and Vietnam vulnerable to the current harassment, which is gradually winding down. The newfangled monitoring programs and licensing schemes are likely to face a similar fate. For those manufacturers and importers who still refuse to modernize, the day of economic reckoning is fast approaching.

Philippine Fly-Over

posted by
on September 25, 2007

CLARK FIELD, Philippines — The economic potential of the Philippines — and all the reasons it has yet to live up to that potential — come sharply into focus as soon as a visitor lands. Literally. With Manila’s current major international air terminal, some 50 miles to the city’s south, already too congested for serious expansion, the battle over the future of the Philippines’ next premier international air gateway has become a microcosm of all that the country could be, and all that’s holding it back.

Still widely known as “Clark Field,” the old name from its days as an American military airbase, the airport-in-waiting is now officially the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, in honor of the former Philippine president and father of current President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. And Ms. Arroyo has been playing the crucial, and often conflicted, role in determining the airport’s future.

Clark and its surrounding community in the province of Pampanga have never been rich. In its heyday during the Cold War, Clark Air Base bustled with energy as a major U.S. listening post and home of the 13th U.S. Air Force. But in June 1991, the U.S. Air Force, under fierce attack from nationalist forces in the Philippine Senate, finally flew out, leaving Clark covered in the volcanic ashes spewed out by nearby Mt. Pinatubo. Clark immediately fell upon hard times. Looters stripped the base clean, down to the toilet lids.

Things began to change in January 2006, when Ms. Arroyo — responding to complaints from the Pampanga business community that too many regulations from Manila were holding back Clark’s potential — signed an executive order unilaterally proclaiming open skies. The move unleashed the forces of economic liberalization at Clark by allowing foreign airlines to fly in hundreds of thousands of tourists from Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and as far away as Dubai. It also opened the door to all the trade that could be conducted via the cargo holds of those planes. The formerly sleepy Clark, which processed fewer than 50,000 passengers three years ago, took off, bringing in nearly 500,000 last year. And prices are dropping. Singapore’s Tiger Airways has been offering flights from Macau to Clark for $9.99.

The benefits aren’t so much trickling into the local economy as pouring. More than 50,000 Filipinos now work here, some 10,000 more than were employed when the Americans ran the place. More jobs are coming as foreign companies find it easier and cheaper to move people and goods in and out.

Texas Instruments is putting in a billion-dollar semiconductor plant. The United Parcel Service has made Clark a regional hub. Yokohama Tire Philippines is making a $100 million expansion, and is exporting tires from Clark all around the world. Shoemart, the big Philippine retail giant, has moved in, as has Jollibee’s, the Philippine answer to McDonald’s (which also serves the nearby community). Other foreign and Philippine entrepreneurs are opening up more businesses to cater to the workers and tourists: hotels, restaurants and so on.

But the growth remains fragile, and will come to a halt if Ms. Arroyo’s government insists upon bringing Clark’s passenger traffic back to a trickle. Which, alarmingly, is just what the government has tried to do. In August 2006, just eight months after the initial liberalization, Ms. Arroyo bowed to pressures from domestic protectionist cronies — the most well-known of whom is billionaire Lucio Tan, the owner of Philippine Airlines — and issued a revised executive order aimed at slowing down the foreign airline traffic. While the numbers for arriving passengers were still up some 35% in the first quarter of this year, it is clear that Clark’s ambitions to become the Philippines’ premier gateway have been seriously threatened.

Citing “the continued uncertainty regarding the regulatory situation at Clark,” Tiger Airways announced on March 23 that it would be reducing its flight frequency from Singapore to Clark to nine weekly flights from 14. As Clark spokesman Arnel San Pedro told me, local business leaders are outraged that the national government would “refuse to prosper because of the subservience of some greedy people to the personal interests of ‘Manila’s Imperial Dragons.'”

Ms. Arroyo’s reversal was especially galling because Mr. Tan — the archetypal “imperial dragon” — is such a terrible well from which to draw economic advice. He first got really rich in the 1970s, thanks to various tax breaks and favors bestowed by former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Understandably, the Chinese-born tycoon takes a dim view of cuttthroat market-oriented competition from foreign-run budget airlines. His critics revile him as the personification of what’s wrong with the Philippine economy.

But Mr. Tan’s current ally in the presidential palace, Ms. Arroyo, is more forgiving. In 2002, the president honored him for his “lifetime” of achievements in “helping build the nation.” Numerous press reports from Manila have it that Mr. Tan has been among Ms. Arroyo’s most generous sources of campaign financing; presidential press secretary Ignacio Bunye declines comment.

Now Ms. Arroyo is being pressed by a deeply concerned Clark business community that believes that Mr. Tan’s influence upon the Arroyo administration is pulling the economic ladder out from under them. The airport’s energetic chief executive, Victor Jose Luciano, made an impassioned presentation last month to Ms. Arroyo and her cabinet urging the president to issue a third executive order undoing the damage she created with her second one back in August 2006.

Ms. Arroyo holds a doctorate in economics, so she presumably understands that her first instincts to open the Philippine skies were the right ones. Her method may be problematic, though. When she moved to slow down the Philippines’ open skies prospects last year, Ms. Arroyo’s public rationale was that instead of unilateral liberalization, the Philippines would negotiate with foreign governments for increased access to their airports in return. Indeed, the Arroyo administration has recently concluded negotiating a major expansion of passenger landings for flights between the Philippines and South Korea.

But behind the scenes, Mr. Tan seems to dominate the process. A leaked copy of the Aug. 9, 2007, minutes of the Philippine government’s official air negotiating panel shows that nine of the 23 members aren’t government officials, but work for Mr. Tan’s PAL and two other Tan-owned airline and cargo operations. Cebu Pacific, another domestic carrier that is following Mr. Tan’s anti-open skies lead, has another two seats.

Since in practice the Philippine airline negotiating body seeks unanimous consent to schedule negotiations with foreign airlines, Mr. Tan effectively has veto power — and last month’s minutes make clear that PAL sees “no immediate need” for urgency in scheduling many more air talks. Supporters of open skies report that the last air talks the Philippine government held with Macau were in 2001, that similar negotiations with Hong Kong last occurred in 1996, and in 1995 for Malaysia and Thailand.

From PAL’s perspective, why hurry? Philippine airline industry sources who ask not to be identified report that Mr. Tan’s airline has found a wonderful way to profit from current restrictions. When passenger quotas assigned by the Philippine authorities to, say, Macau, or Hong Kong, or Dubai, have been filled, the Philippine government has given expanded entitlements to fly more passengers to PAL, which turns around and “rents” those entitlements to foreign carriers. While the details of such deals remain confidential, credible industry insiders report that Dubai is paying PAL at least $1 million a year in passenger rents. Not that this money is “free,” of course: The foreign carriers pass the extra expense on to fliers — many of whom are hard-pressed Philippine overseas workers — in the form of pricier tickets. Mr. Tan, who declined persistent requests to be interviewed for this column, is turning a profit for PAL without flying his own airplanes.

The question now is whether Ms. Arroyo will be able to summon the political courage to stop him from doing it. She might reflect on some history. When the airport’s namesake, her father — an economic reformer — was elected in 1961, the Philippines boasted the second-largest economy in Asia, second only to Japan. When Ferdinand Marcos won election four years later, he went on to help enrich his cronies while crippling the economy with an array of protectionist schemes. With a stroke of her presidential pen, Ms. Arroyo could not only re-open Philippine skies to economic development, she could also prove that “Philippine prosperity” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.
Mr. Rushford is editor of The Rushford Report, an online journal that follows the politics of international trade and diplomacy.