Are TPP negotiations finally coming to an end?

TPP talk

After five-and-a-half years of negotiations, the end to talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) might finally be in sight. Both speakers at a talk organised by the Asian Trade Centre on Monday felt that all parties would finally reach an agreement over the far-reaching trade deal by the end of the week despite protests from activists in relation to health, environmental and labour issues.

The TPP is a trade agreement involving twelve countries: the United States, Singapore, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam.

Alan Oxley, a former Australian ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), noted that this agreement is significantly different from previous free trade agreements as it not only deals with lowering tariffs but also with the liberalisation of investment and services together with the promotion of “high-quality intellectual property” which he described as necessary to “underpin growth in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, Dr Deborah Elms, described the TPP as “game-changing”, but said it was “not appreciated in many respects”. With the agreement aimed at opening up a majority – if not all – of various sectors for investment, negotiations have been tricky as countries have sought to get the best deal for themselves while not giving too much ground in terms of their own protectionist policies.

One major issue holding up agreement on the terms of the TPP is that of dairy, Elms said. Canada, a member state, currently has very protectionist measures over its dairy industry and market, with a system in place to keep out foreign – and especially American – dairy products. The Canadian dairy industry also has a strong political voice in Canada – a fact that politicians cannot ignore as the country goes into campaign mode for the next federal election.

Yet getting Canada to loosen its protectionist policies is important for America’s dairy industry in terms of seeking new markets to enter, Elms said. If Canada was going to be reluctant to open up, America and Japan would similarly be loathed to loosen their own protectionism, which would lead to unhappiness in New Zealand and Australia, both of which are massive dairy exporters.

Other issues have included tobacco, state-owned enterprises, autos and auto parts, and also Malaysia’s bumiputra policy, which allows Malay firms to have priority access to government contracts.

Both speakers felt that the TPP had been “undersold” by governments to their people, and that the net impact on companies would be substantial from the moment an agreement is reached. Although the agreement favours larger corporations, small companies like architectural firms might also benefit by tapping on larger supply chains.

The issue of labour rights, too, is part of the TPP, although Elms’ prediction was that “everyone is going to be disappointed” by the chapter on labour. As the United States itself has not ratified all eight fundamental International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, it would not be eager to include in the TPP any obligation to do so.

Responding to a question from The Online Citizen (TOC), Elms later said that as far as she knew (the text of the TPP still being highly confidential) the agreement does not undermine any existing labour rights and protections in each of the member countries – what it does is to “[provide] minimum threshold for protection of labour”.

“Human rights activists will be unhappy with a minimum threshold, but politically it’s hard to do and doesn’t seem to belong in a trade agreement,” she said, adding that the more such contentious issues are included in trade deal the harder it will be to reach an agreement.

The TPP has been a controversial matter in a number of countries. A court case is currently ongoing in New Zealand as eight applicants are alleging that Trade Minister Tim Groser had acted unlawfully when he issued a refusal of an Official Information Act request for information related to the TPP negotiations. Doctors Without Borders have come out to oppose the TPP, expressing their concern that intellectual property provisions within the agreement would impact the production of much-needed generic, affordable medication. Protests have also been seen in Japan as well as New Zealand.

At the Asian Trade Centre event both speakers were somewhat dismissive of such protest and criticism, with Oxley describing it as “the noise frame that’s running against us”. He argued that this “cacophony of protests” was probably due to the fact that people now have “louder broadcast platforms” with which to express their disapproval, but felt that they still do not represent the majority.

Launched in 2014, the Asian Trade Centre describes itself as a “premier independent advocate for growing trade in the Asia Pacific region”. It seeks to bridge government and business leaders in promoting trade. Its funding comes from governments such as Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as companies such as Google, New Zealand dairy corporation Fonterra, Brazilian chicken exporter BRF and PMI (which could refer to Phillip Morris International). Other funders include aid agencies, think tanks and individuals.