The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)— a proposed 12-nation NAFTA-style deal — is on ice. The corporate-led agreement is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and it was supposed to be finalized at a July 28-31 summit of trade ministers in Maui. Instead, the summit ended July 31 without a deal, and without any further dates set for negotiation.
The talks have been conducted entirely in secret, and even the U.S. proposals are classified. But news reports pointed to a variety of sticking points that caused the breakdown: U.S. unwillingness to open up its protected sugar market to Australia, Canada’s unwillingness to open up its protected dairy sector to New Zealand, Mexico’s concern about duty-free import of Japanese cars made with Thai parts, and multiple countries’ unwillingness to go along with U.S. demand for 12-year patent monopolies on new drugs.
Meanwhile, on the same day the summit ended, Wikileaks released classified evidence that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has conducted surveillance on Japanese trade negotiators. That certainly won’t foster an atmosphere of trust going forward.
It’s possible the stall could spell the end of Obama’s chances of passing the TPP. Under the recently-passed Fast Track procedure, Congress reviews trade deals for 30 days, followed by 60 days during which the public can see it. That means at least three months would elapse before a vote, and Congress is less likely to pass the unpopular trade deal in 2016, an election year. Obama’s term ends in January 2017.
On a related issue, the Obama Administration appears to have employed a cynical dodge to a human rights provision that was added to the Fast Track bill. Some opponents have criticized the TPP because it includes Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, countries considered to be human rights abusers. Malaysia, in particular, was classed by the U.S. State Department as one of the worst countries in the world on human trafficking. That’s because Malaysian industries from electronics to apparel to palm oil employ two million foreign workers, many in conditions of forced labor. In May, mass graves were discovered near abandoned jungle camps in Malaysia. The camps, which featured bamboo cages and watch towers, were used by smugglers bringing in workers from Myanmar. Aware of that horror, members of Congress added a provision that no country classed in Tier 3 of the State Department’s human trafficking list would be eligible for a trade treaty with the United States. On July 27, the State Department upgraded Malaysia to Tier 2 in its annual human trafficking report, even though no progress has been made. That’s after 160 members of the U.S. House and 18 U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to keep Malaysia on Tier 3. On Aug. 3, Reuters reported that political staff had overruled the department’s own specialists to make that change.