CRS report: Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements: Issues for Congress

From the summary of Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements: Issues for Congress (R45198, May 17, 2018):

Congress plays a prominent role in shaping, debating, and approving legislation to implement trade agreements, and over the past three decades, bilateral and regional trade agreements (RTAs, or free trade agreements (FTAs) in the U.S. context) have become a primary source of new international trade liberalization commitments. The United States has historically pursued FTAs to open markets for U.S. goods, services, and agriculture, and establish trade rules and disciplines to enhance overall domestic and global economic growth. They are actively debated and can be contentious due to concerns over the potential employment effects of greater import competition, among other reasons.

In the current environment of stalled multilateral negotiations, RTAs provide an alternative venue to pursue trade liberalization and establish new rules on emerging issues. RTAs are, however, inherently discriminatory given their limited membership (i.e., they provide preferential treatment to some countries and not others), leading to debate over their global economic effect and whether they serve to facilitate future multilateral agreements or lead to the creation of competing trade blocs. U.S. exporters benefit from the preferential aspects of FTAs when they gain better access to FTA partner markets than their foreign competitors, but may be similarly harmed when third parties negotiate agreements that do not include the United States.

To date there are no RTAs in force between the world’s largest economies (China, Japan, European Union (EU), and the United States). This could change in the near future as these and other major U.S. trading partners are involved in several pending RTAs, including an ongoing negotiation between 16 Asian nations that involves both China and Japan, and two recently concluded but not yet ratified and implemented RTAs: the EU-Japan agreement (one of twelve pending EU RTAs) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

— Joe

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