By Nile Bowie
15 November, 2013
The secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is the Obama administration’s bid to perpetuate US hegemony in Asia and lay the groundwork for a Pacific century led by American corporate and military muscle.
Although proponents of the TPP may claim that its focus is to help the economies of signatory countries, create comprehensive market access, eliminate barriers to trade, improve labor rights, and encourage environmental protection, every indication suggests that the wide-ranging agreement intends to dramatically maximize corporate revenues at the expensive of public health and safety, civil liberties, and national sovereignty. While the significant majority of the draft text remains inaccessible and shielded from public scrutiny due to draconian non-disclosure agreements, leaks made available by courageous individuals via WikiLeaks indicate that this trade deal intends to champion corporate rights and blur the divisions between governments and multinationals. In essence, the stipulations of the trade deal would make governments – including their national laws to regulate public and environmental health – subservient to corporations and their maximization of profits.
As China’s economic and military clout rises while American leadership wanes, the TPP is an integral part of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. The trade deal has been negotiated between the United States and eleven other Pacific Rim nations including Japan, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, Chile, Singapore, and Malaysia since 2008. Despite the length and breadth of the talks, leaks indicate dozens upon dozens of contentious issues have yet to be resolved, and that other countries participating nearly unanimously oppose the US position on patents, intellectual property, and a host of other issues. The TPP is being negotiated concurrently with the highly secretive US-EU deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which contains many of the same provisions regarding the investor-state settlement dispute mechanism that allows corporations to sue governments for changes in policy (often done to protect public health and the environment) that undermine the expected future profits of a company. These measures significantly distort the legal playing field and incentivize governments to issue policies with overtly private interests at heart.
Don’t forget the geopolitics
The glaring absence of Russia and China in these agreements is no accident; geopolitics is not a factor that should be overlooked in analyzing US trade policy. Many countries in Southeast Asia taking part in the TPP negotiations employ foreign-investment led growth strategies; China is the biggest investor in the region and is a vital partner to countries like Malaysia and Singapore. The Obama administration believes unfettered access to Southeast Asian markets will allow it to harness the region’s rapid economic growth to fuel its own economic recovery. More importantly, the trade deal is viewed as a means to undermine China and reduce dependence on it by giving products manufactured in TPP-countries preferential access to US markets, thereby encouraging extreme low-wage working conditions in countries like Vietnam. China will almost certainly face weakening overall export competitiveness while the US gains leadership over the region’s trade rules, strengthened corporate monopolies, and increased political (and military) influence.
The TPP transparently aims to economically contain China’s rise and reduce the scope for internationalization of the renminbi, while US military presence around the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca is quietly building up to broaden Washington’s capacity to police vital trade and energy chokepoints. The Obama administration has set an ambitious target to sign the trade deal into law before 2014, despite an ongoing deadlock in trade negotiations due to the reluctance of some participatory nations to accept broadened intellectual property rights legislation that would disproportionately benefit US firms, as well as drastic deregulation of financial sectors and measures that would undermine existing monetary policy in participating countries. Rampant lobbying from Hollywood, the recording industry, and US pharmaceutical, biotech and entertainment corporations quite visibly influences the Obama administration’s trade policies, and the ongoing disputes documented in the leaked intellectual property chapter may delay or prevent the deal from becoming law.
Is there an alternative to copyright fundamentalism?
Leaks suggest that the US is demanding that draconian provisions be imposed on TPP-countries that would require ISPs to enforce copyright law on behalf of foreign corporations that would include closing down their customers’ accounts for marginal offensives, in addition to restricting cheaper parallel importing, and even (ridiculously) allowing plants and animals to be patented. The IP regulations being aggressively pursued by Washington would export US copyright law abroad and introduce measures seen in the shelved SOPA and PIPA bills that would stifle innovation and digital file-sharing while limiting Internet freedom and access to educational materials. Several leaders of TPP-countries have expressed their reticence in the deal’s IP provisions that openly disregard public health by banning the production of low-cost generic medicines that may violate patents (which are slated to be extended under the deal’s terms and conditions). Reports indicate that the trade deal would also prohibit countries from putting limits on risky financial instruments, speculation, and derivatives, while measures to mitigate risk through enacting capital controls would also rolled back.
It is clear to see the reluctance of some leaders to agree to the positions that the US has aggressively pushed in the TPP, but many fear that pulling out from the deal completely would put their countries at a competitive disadvantage. Countries participating in the TPP such as New Zealand have suggested a series of alternative proposals that would avoid blocks to generic medicines, but US representatives refuse to fully agree to such provisions. Why should countries in the region submit themselves to a highly draconian and discriminatory deal that would have adverse affects on their populations? The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) represents something of an alternative; this lesser-known deal is currently being negotiated and involves 16 countries including China, India, Japan, South Korea, the entire ASEAN-bloc, Australia, and New Zealand. Unlike the TPP, the RCEP offers a truly inclusive lineup of Pacific states.
Closer economic integration in the Pacific is a stated goal of leaders in numerous countries and one cannot run away from it. Although such a deal would naturally contain controversial provisions in some areas, individual countries would have far more lenience in drafting beneficial measures in an equal negotiating environment through the RCEP that would allow developing countries to expand social services and protect their environments rather than becoming captive markets of predatory multinational corporations. The fact that the public must rely on individual leakers who can potentially be persecuted for revealing information that should rightfully be open to public scrutiny is indicative of the repressive nature of the interests propagating trade systems of this nature. WikiLeaks has again proven its relevancy by exposing the corporate entities that are the true wielders of authority behind those formally in office. There is good reason for President Obama to lobby for fast track authority that would diminish Congress’ constitutional power to set the terms of US trade policy. If Congress or the public were given a chance to review the secretive draft text of the TPP, it would be enthusiastically abandoned.