A Closer Look at the Real Flaws of the TPP Deal

Alan Tonelson |

The release this morning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP) text means that the Obama administration has kept at least one of its promises in connection with the Pacific Rim agreement: The public has gained the ability to review every single provision in detail within a month of the deal’s signing in Atlanta, Georgia.

Nonetheless, when it comes to evaluating the TPP, the devil is not in the details, and never has been – for all the sweat expended by government officials and industry lobbyists from the 12 signatory countries on even the most arcane aspects of rules of origin, tariff rates and elimination schedules, copyright protections, labor and environmental standards, and the like. All the while, there have been only been two remotely possible exceptions – the agreement’s provisions for dispute resolution, and for determining which goods will actually be eligible for the agreement’s trade breaks.

Re dispute resolution, which is obviously crucial to any agreement’s effectiveness but which has been generally ignored in the TPP debate, the text’s release simply confirms what has always been utterly predictable: This system mirrors the kangaroo court arrangements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – whose creation has done virtually nothing to prevent the U.S. economy’s victimization from predatory foreign trade practices. As a result, the claim of President Obama and other supporters that the agreement will create a huge, increasingly integrated market governed by U.S.-friendly, free-market-oriented rules should be recognized as the most naive imaginable fantasy.

Re rules of origin, the text confirms numerous press reports that the TPP’s benefits will extend to many products whose content comes from outside the new trade zone – which makes a mockery of the notions that currently excluded countries like China need to join in order to enjoy TPP’s benefits, and that the agreement’s conclusion therefore creates powerful incentives for such non-signatories to adopt the TPP’s high standards,

The TPP dispute-resolution process unveiled in the text demonstrates that the vast majority of member states, whose prosperity depends heavily on maximizing net exports and thus racking up trade surpluses, will gain major new guarantees of unfettered access to America’s much more open market. As with the WTO, a crucial effect of the TPP – and raison d’etre – is to narrow greatly the United States’ internationally accepted legal authority to respond unilaterally to the types of mercantilism in which most TPP countries, notably gigantic Japan, specialize.

Moreover, as with the WTO, despite the paramount importance of the U.S. market, the TPP’s dispute-resolution and rule-making systems grant no special role for America. Even though its economy represents nearly two-thirds of the new total TPP market, its influence under the agreement is simply equal to that of much smaller, and indeed tiny, economies.

Worse, just as with the WTO, the TPP’s one-country/one-vote arrangement will enable the majority of the signatories to game the system and work cooperatively to further their joint goal of ensuring that the U.S. market remains much wider open to their goods and services than the reverse. In other words, like the WTO, and all other international organizations, the TPP will be fundamentally a political organization, not a legal-juridical arrangement, and America’s negotiating strategy has in effect defined its inevitable politics out of existence.

Consequently, whatever market-opening and playing-field language the TPP text contains, turning these words into significantly new, more equitable trade realities is a chimera. For the vast majority of TPP members will be determined – and empowered through their ability to interpret rules and influence verdicts – to ensure the opposite. These countries will be working overtime, and successfully, to prevent TPP dispute-resolution panels from handing down decisions against one that could serve as precedents against all of the others, and the larger organization from writing rules, that could be used to undermine their mercantile national economic structures and strategies.

Understanding the TPP’s protectionist-friendly structure in particular debunks U.S. claims that it will foster meaningful progress toward ending or even disciplining currency manipulation. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, an agreement on this practice among the twelve signatories – which, revealingly, isn’t even in the actual TPP text – “sets a new high standard on exchange rate policies and unfair currency practices for trade agreements.”

But believing this proposition amounts to believing that countries with long protectionist histories, like Japan and Malaysia, are OK with launching efforts that eventually will forever prevent them from using a device for creating decisive price advantages for all the goods they trade in markets around the world. What is it that is known about such economies that convinces anyone that such changes of heart have taken place?

In addition, the rules of origin laid out in the final text make clear that nothing could be easier for non-signatories, like China, to enjoy many crucial advantages of TPP membership. After all, thousands of manufactured goods will be eligible for duty-free or duty-lighter treatment in TPP markets even if most of their content comes from non-TPP members. Given the pervasive global reality of industrial supply chains passing through many countries both in the TPP and outside, this is a Pacific-sized loophole.

The text’s release also should remind Congress, the public, and the media that even if the TPP’s deck wasn’t organizationally stacked against the United States, its measures to prevent abuses of workers and the environment, and the operations of state-owned enterprises, from being used for competitive advantage, are utterly unenforceable from a simple logistical and administrative standpoint.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the factory complexes of even relatively small TPP economies dwarf the capacity of the U.S. government to monitor their labor and environmental practices systematically. And in many TPP economies, the lines between public and private sector are blurry enough, and bureaucracies opaque and skilled enough at concealing information, to render wishful thinking any confidence that these systems can be transformed.

It’s equally fanciful to suppose that even the TPP’s minimalist origin rules can be effectively enforced, either. How many million American bureaucrats would be required to open how many containers of goods coming into U.S. ports to ensure compliance? And how many more would be needed to find out whether boxes of Chinese-produced goods marked “Made in Malaysia” or “Made in Japan” really are?

All along, the effort to negotiate the TPP, and the debate generated by the deal, have reflected the American delusion that signatures on a piece of paper prove that economies that have been largely closed and centrally commanded for decades have genuinely decided to mend their ways. It’s been a delusion shared by both agreement supporters (who contend that they’ve accomplished this aim) and opponents (who insist that this goal can be achieved with better language).

As a result, even the TPP’s defeat in Congress may not guarantee that American trade policy will get off its failed, export- and negotiations-obsessed track, and focus on what the United States has much more control over – access to its own one-of-a-kind market and the leverage it creates to establish more equitable and sustainable terms of trade unilaterally. But the right kind of TPP debate could still provide an invaluable learning opportunity – and start the process of turning America’s approach to trade into an engine of domestic growth and job creation, rather than of offshoring, higher trade deficits, and (even) slower recovery.

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