GENEVA - The prompt resolution of a 15-year old dispute over access to U.S. roads by Mexican trucks could be another casualty of the deadly swine flu outbreak, international trade experts said on Monday.
Increased health checks to control the virus, which has killed 103 people in Mexico and infected at least 20 in the United States, could also slow the passage of goods across the busy but troubled U.S.-Mexico border, they said.
The United States imported around $216 billion of goods from Mexico in 2008, making its southern neighbor its third-largest trading partner after Canada and China, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Earlier this month while on an official trip to Mexico, U.S. President Barack Obama told officials he was prepared to move fast to open U.S. roads to Mexican trucks and resolve a dispute dating to the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Obama was very clear he wants to solve the issue as soon as possible, Jose Luis Paz, head of the trade office at Mexico's embassy in Washington, said last week.
John Weekes, an international trade law expert at Sidley Austin in Geneva, who was Canada's chief negotiator for NAFTA, said that public health concerns could dampen Washington's enthusiasm about ending the dispute and easing the passage of goods from Mexico.
Anything that has been outstanding now for 15 years or so is perhaps not susceptible to a quick solution, Weekes said.
White & Case law partner Brendan McGivern said neither growing drug violence around the border area nor the swine flu outbreak should impact how the trucking dispute is resolved -- but that it may impact when it is settled.
This has been going on for so long and normally these type of extraneous factors don't play a role. But it may not be completely irrelevant, McGivern said.
While the United States is committed to open its roads under NAFTA, its safety rules have required that goods shipped by road from Mexico be transported on U.S. trucks. This often requires cargo to be moved at the border from Mexican to U.S. vehicles.
In March, Mexico retaliated by imposing tariffs on a long list of U.S. exports worth an estimated $2.4 billion. The duties range from 10 to 45 percent on about $1.56 billion worth of U.S. manufactured goods and $892 million of agricultural goods.
But Washington may take its time to address it, especially if flu threats continue to dominate headlines.
There might be some reluctance to look at opening while things are getting worse, Weekes said.
Trade restrictions prompted by public health emergencies like the swine flu outbreak are permitted under international law, if they are only maintained as long as necessary.
As long as the measure you take is based on sound science, it is perfectly permitted within the rules, McGivern said. I would view this as a bit different than crude protectionism.