The TPP – Commercial or Foreign Policy Victory?

Jing Han, MJLST Staffer

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed trade among twelve Pacific Rim countries, which are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, United States, Singapore and Vietnam, concerning a variety of matters of economic policy, about which agreement was reached on October 5, 2015 after 5 years of negotiations. The 12 countries including the United States of America have agreed to build a new cooperation structure through this agreement. TPP’s 30 chapters have set binding rules on everything from service-sector regulation, investment, patents and copyrights, government procurement, financial regulation, and labor and environmental standards, as well as trade in industrial goods and agriculture. The combined Gross Domestic Product-GDP of the world’s largest pact of these 12 countries is nearly 28 trillion dollars. Those dozen states account for roughly forty percent of global gross domestic product, thirty percent of global exports and twenty-five percent of global imports.

Some people believe that one of the reasons for the recent push for new trade initiatives is a feeling that the WTO system is not working. This view is probably not an uncommon one. But is it correct? It is worth looking at just what the WTO does, and how it compares to the TPP as a possible alternative trade agreement and organization.

First, all 159 WTO members have made promises not to charge tariffs above rates that are set out in legally binding schedules. The TPP does have the potential to go further than the WTO in terms of tariff reductions and services liberalization. Of course, such commitments would be preferential, only given to a handful of trading partners, and thus would not be truly free trade. There are significant economic benefits to having free trade cover as many countries as possible, including the avoidance of complex and trade-restricting rules of origin.

Second, WTO rules also discipline special tariffs imposed against dumping and subsidies. Through the WTO, these tariffs are subject to detailed rules to prevent them from being abused, which they frequently have been over the years. The TPP will not address anti-dumping/countervailing duties or subsidies at all. And the WTO’s rules on regulatory protectionism are already working quite well, so it is difficult to imagine what the TPP would do in this regard.

Third, WTO rules govern customs procedures, including valuation and classification issues, to prevent these procedures from being used as a disguised means of protection. Furthermore, WTO rules include general prohibitions on using domestic regulations and taxes for protectionist purposes. The WTO’s jurisprudence on these issues is widely respected, and WTO rulings have addressed a range of regulatory protectionism. The TPP would also go beyond the WTO in areas such as intellectual property protection, foreign investment protection, and environmental and labor regulation. But further is not necessarily better. These items have been added to the trade agenda to drum up new support. However, they have also stirred up a good deal of new opposition, and made trade negotiations more complex and difficult.

Fourth, Congress recognized “the growing significance of the Internet as a trading platform in international commerce” and instructed President Obama to achieve objectives concerning digital trade in goods and services and cross-border data flows. The Obama administration wants “digital trade rules-of-the-road” in the TPP agreement. These rules could mark a turning point in the global governance of digital commerce. The importance of digital technologies to trade has grown without multilateral rules keeping pace. The WTO is the main source of multilateral trade agreements, but it was established before the Internet transformed how companies produce, sell, and deliver products and services. In a declaration of 1998, WTO members agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions and recognized the need to address e-commerce directly. However, the WTO’s e-commerce work program has not progressed much because WTO members disagree on various issues.

Fifth, beyond the commercial implications, many experts regard the TPP as a key part of American foreign policy. Amid the rise of China and its increasing exercise of political and military power in East Asia, the Obama administration has said it would turn its attention more to the East, the so-called pivot to Asia, in an effort to strengthen U.S influence in that region. The challenge for China, should it wish to join the TPP, is undertaking the reforms that the agreement would require. For instance, joining TPP will require opening markets in areas such as services and investment and agreeing to new rules in sensitive areas such as the role of state-owned enterprises and access to the Internet. That said, many of the reforms that becoming a TPP party would require are consistent with the internal reforms that China has already identified as being necessary, including reform of its financial sector, strengthening the role of services in the Chinese economy, and encouraging innovation.

In sum, The WTO is an excellent system. Its great strength is its multilateral framework, incorporating most of the world’s nations. However, with the advent of the 21st century, the limits of the WTO’s functions have become increasingly apparent. The Doha Round, marked by conflict between the opinions of developed and emerging nations and the subsequent stalling of negotiations, stands as a symbol of these limits. With more nations participating and more comprehensive liberalization being pursued, it is unavoidable that negotiations will face difficulties. In relation to the TPP, a former senior U.S. official is said to have commented that the U.S. sought to demonstrate its level of commitment to the Asia-Pacific region through its active involvement in the agreement negotiations. The Asia-Pacific region is becoming increasingly important to the U.S., and this fact is manifested in the nation’s initiatives in relation to the TPP. In this respect, the TPP has more political implications compared with its commercial considerations.

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