Senators rally support for Africa trade deal amid competition with China

Bipartisan enthusiasm for trade with Africa beamed forth from the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday against a wider backdrop of competition with China and an ongoing reassessment of U.S. trade postures.

Senators on both sides of the aisle acknowledged the many points of agreement they had on extending the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), two programs that knock down trade restrictions on African products.

“I’m pleased to join in this pro-trade love fest that we’re having here today,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. He called the hearing a “refreshing development,” a possible reference to the lack of consensus surrounding the U.S. trade agenda in recent years.

The AGOA trade program, which allows for duty-free African exports to the U.S., is set to expire next year. Trade benefits in the related GSP, which are maintained by a number of advanced economies and geared toward developing nations, expired in the U.S. in 2020.

The GSP applied to about 4,600 imported goods while its expansions under AGOA apply to more than 6,400 imports, according to the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.

African countries view the AGOA partnership as valuable for their economies.

Uganda, which was thrown out of the AGOA for what the U.S. termed “gross violations of human rights” following the passage of a law against homosexuality in 2023 that was recently upheld by the country’s high court, has been seeking readmission to the program.

Odrek Rwabwogo, chair of Uganda’s presidential advisory committee on exports and industrial development, visited Capitol Hill in May where he spoke to the House Ways and Means Committee about getting back into the program, how long it could be extended, and how it would affect the design of his country’s economy.

“We were speaking about regionalization of value chains in cotton [and] in coffee, so that even when AGAO, when we are restored to that position to trade, we should have joint companies between our countries so that cotton does not come from other countries,” he told The Hill.

Regional trading groups among African countries were also subjects on discussion, he said.

“We are starting to think about the African free trade area, which should be a voice for Africa trade — not country by country, so that we begin to speak to North America as a united voice and so that America begins to look at us as a place of growth,” he said.

On the subject of his country’s position on LGBTQ rights, Rwabwogo said that “it takes time for things to change. Societies change slowly.”

U.S. zeal for trade with Africa follows years of geopolitical competition with China on the continent, where the country has helped to fund infrastructure projects and numerous joint commercial ventures.

In May, President Biden cranked up the competition by announcing a sweeping new set of tariffs against Chinese goods, some of which will ensure that inexpensive Chinese vehicles never make it to U.S. markets.

Africa’s enormous wealth in natural resources has made it a focus of the ongoing industrial transition to alternative energy products, many of which require metals and minerals that are found there in abundance.

Following the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 and the more progressive North American free trade agreement update known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020, trade with Africa could represent a new focal point for the U.S. trade agenda.

“I hope I have a reputation of being a free trader. And I think as time goes on, I’m a minority in the Congress … and maybe a minority in the country as a whole,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Wednesday. “Free trade has lifted millions of people out of poverty.”

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