Critical Analysis: The Trans-Pacific Partnership and its Discontents

Not everyone likes trade agreements
Not everyone likes trade agreements
Not everyone likes trade agreements

President Obama is touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a 21st Century trade agreement, a model for everything from industrial goods to Internet services. The principal purpose of which, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is to increase trade and remove restrictions on the flow of goods and capital between member states. So far, the negotiations include the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Chile, Peru, and Vietnam. Last week, President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced to Congress that Canada and Mexico, the U.S.’ largest trading partner and second largest export market respectively, will join the negotiations as well.

The 13th round of talks concluded this week on July 10th in San Diego after a week of negotiations, with many officials lauding “significant progress” on issues from copyright protection, agriculture products, state-owned enterprises, and financial services. Once an agreement is reached, it is poised to become a trading bloc representing 686 million people and with a total GDP of $20.5 trillion.

The prospect of increased profits and jobs notwithstanding, 132 Congressmen wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk expressing their concern that the negotiations lack transparency. Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican from the San Diego area and Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought to attend the talks in San Diego (a rare request from a Congressman) but was denied access to anything beyond generic public events. As with most trade agreements, the negotiations occur behind closed doors with very few given access to the agreement’s text until it is finished. Congress, however, believes that in such a large and unprecedented trade agreement, too much is left in the hands of negotiators and the 600 special interest lobbyists who do, in fact, have access to and influence over sensitive negotiations materials.

A “Stop TPP” demonstration was organized to bring attention to the treaty negotiations through an ambitious array of protest marches, rallies, press conferences and teach-ins. The coalition included union leaders, Occupy San Diego, Public Citizen, and Global Trade Watch. The AFL-CIO has also voiced its opposition to the TPP. Their concern? Again, that special interests and corporate lobbyists are selling America’s future (and their jobs) across the Pacific for the sake of increased profits.

Although the TPP is far from finished, it is gaining notoriety especially since Canada and Mexico became negotiating partners. At the moment, Japan and South Korea have observer status, however; it is likely these two countries will also join in the near future. The TPP may one day encompass the entire pacific-rim with the exception of – you guessed it – China. China has not been invited to join the talks, nor do the current negotiating parties plan on extending one. Many see this is an American move to contain China economically. Whatever the motive, China’s absence does give one pause. And it does make one think that profits are not the only motive involved.

 Michael Cox is a rising third-year law student at the University of Denver, a Senior Editor for the View From Above, and a Candidacy Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.