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White House Putting China, Myanmar Human Rights Front and Center

The Biden administration has set its sights on two areas of global trade of high interest to the fashion industry–relations with China and Myanmar.

Each of these countries and situations have human rights issues at play and the status of importing and exporting to these countries, according to a United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) webinar hosted Tuesday by David Spooner and Eddie Ayoob, trade experts and partners at the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg.

Ayoob discussed Tuesday the release of the State Department’s “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” and remarks from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on China and Myanmar, referred to by the White House as Burma.

“The report released today shows the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction,” Blinken said about China. “We see it in the genocide being committed against the predominantly Mulsim Uyghurs and other ethnic groups and religious minorities in Xinjiang.”

On Burma, Blinken said while the report was written before the military coup occurred, “we must highlight them.”

“Non-violent protestors in Burma have been killed, beaten, imprisoned, including on Saturday, when more than 100 people were reportedly killed by the military,” he said. “We condemn these and otherwise widespread violation by Burma’s security forces in the strongest terms.”

Ayoob said the report took on added importance this year because the Trump administration “gone out of their way to downplay human rights in formulation of policy,” whereas the Biden administration has reverse course and “you’re seeing that play out…with China and Xinjiang and…Myanmar.”

Spooner said that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is pending in Congress with seemingly strong bipartisan support, citing the bill’s Senate co-sponsors–conservative Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.) and liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.)

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The bill would require companies to prove “clear and convincing evidence” that any products sourced from Xinjiang are not made with forced labor. It also requires a list of products made by forced labor in XUAR and a list of businesses that sold such products in the United States, as well as determinations by Customs & Border Patrol whether reasonable grounds exist for issuing Withhold Release Orders on several Chines companies operating in the region.

On Myanmar, Spooner, who is also USFIA’s Washington counsel, noted that immediately after she was sworn in, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai suspended the Trade & Investment Framework Agreement with the country.

He said Tai’s experience and actions so far, meeting nearly every day virtually with foreign leaders will allow her to be “an active U.S. Trade Representative–that’s a good thing from our perspective.”

“We won’t always agree with Ambassador Tai on trade issues, but I’m confident that she will have an open door, that she will at least listen, and at least of she rejects our point of view it will be from a well-informed perspective.”

He said if and when Congress reinstates the General System of Preferences (GSP) preferential trade program that allows duty-free entry of imports on a range of goods from a slew of countries, he expects Myanmar’s to be immediately suspended by Tai.

“In the long term, we can expect broader sanctions, similar to the pre-2010 regime,” he said, referring to the prior military regime before a decade of elections and democratic reforms had ensued.

On China, Spooner said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has directed eight committees to craft legislation aimed at increasing competitiveness in science and technology to counter China’s influence on the world stage.

A package could also include funding for efforts to promote semiconductor manufacturing and research in the U.S. He said the base legislation for a package, the Endless Frontiers Act that Schumer has introduced with Indiana Republican Sen. Todd Young, is scheduled for a markup in the Commerce Committee after the spring recess.

As for the China Section 301 tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, Spooner said, “we cannot expect the tariffs to go off quickly” because the administration has the goal of working out joint strategy with allies before removing them.

“If I had to bet if we will see any changes, we’ll see two things play out in the medium term,” Spooner said. “First, it will be my hope that the administration will perhaps permit product exclusion requests to occur again and if so, adopt a more transparent exclusion process. And secondly, during the Bush and Obama administrations there was a semiannual meeting between the U.S. and China in which both countries met to discuss trade issues. That fell by the wayside during the Trump administration…and I can see those semiannual coming again” and perhaps the tariffs will be able to be removed.

On other trade matters, Spooner said the GSP program is expected to be renewed, as is the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB) that includes temporary duty suspensions. Both could be renewed retroactively, with some changes.

A bigger lift is Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which expires on July 1 and is needed for the president to conduct any serious trade negotiations, since it allows for an up or down vote on Congress on added agreed-upon pacts without the allowance of amendments.

“My educated guess is that we could see a major trade bill that combines GSP, MTB and TPA in August before the summer recess,” Spooner said.