Washington (AFP) -
They call it the 'Three Amigos' summit, but when President Joe Biden and the leaders of Canada and Mexico met Thursday at the White House, trade and immigration tensions threatened to dampen the friendly vibe.
Biden was holding separate talks with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, before all three gathered together.
His predecessor Donald Trump abandoned the regular trilateral summit, but Biden is working to smoothen relations among North America's three huge countries, which form the USMCA free trade block, just as he has for US ties with European and Asian allies.
'This is one of the easiest relationships that we have,' he said, sitting with Trudeau in the Oval Office.
According to White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher, the regional summit is 'the culmination of 10 months of work to revitalize North America as a platform that is both critical to our domestic economic success, as well as a partnership that can play a critical role in resolving regional and global challenges.'
In addition to feuding publicly with Trudeau, Trump threatened to abandon the free trade agreement and imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel.
But just because the tempestuous Trump presidency is over, that does not mean the issues he stirred up have gone away.
- Protectionism? -
In an echo of Trump's 'America first' ideology, Biden is trying to reinvigorate the struggling US industrial base, especially in the rapidly emerging clean energy and electric vehicles market, which is causing friction with the neighbors.
Mexico and Canada are alarmed at Biden's proposal for a tax credit encouraging US production of electric vehicles, like the powerful all-electric Hummer he test drove during a visit to General Motor's plant in Detroit on Wednesday.
Another sticking point is Biden's 'Buy American' policy for the federal government when it shops for its huge fleet of automobiles -- something Canada says is undisguised protectionism.
'We are going to talk about that,' Biden said as he started his meeting with Trudeau.
Meagher defended Biden's policy, saying he had always campaigned on boosting union jobs and beyond that 'there's going to be ample opportunities' to work with Canada and Mexico on regional economic growth.
One growing regional problem where the White House is looking for cooperation is resolving crippling hiccups in the supply chain, a senior Biden administration official said.
And to the south, Mexico is under pressure to help resolve a politically explosive immigration mess on the US southern border.
Where Trump turned the fight against illegal immigration into one of his most potent campaign messages, Biden has emphasized the need for a humane policy.
A senior administration official told reporters that the emphasis at Thursday's trilateral meeting would be on regional solutions.
Facing 'unprecedented displacement,' stoked by Covid-19 economic fallout and climate change, the United States wants to 'lock arms together with Canada and Mexico' to 'come up with a common approach,' the official said.
Noting that Mexico was itself turning into a major destination for illegal migrants, the official said the countries would aim to resolve the 'root causes.'