WASHINGTON, October 13, 2015 — The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an economic policy issue that is being framed by the administration as a means to balance Chinese influence over the Pacific Rim.
With continuous Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea driving China’s neighbors to seek closer ties with the U.S., as well as worries about China’s tenuous position on Syria, TPP appears to be a means of mitigating Chinese economic power. Framing TPP in terms of national security, however, distorts the benefits of this massive free trade agreement and pushes people to embrace a policy that can be successful only if it is economically beneficial to the U.S. and its trading partners.
The extensive negotiations on the TPP and key elements of its provisions have been kept secret and are known only to a select few. The 12 members of the partnership reached agreement on a TPP treaty on October 5, but its details will not be known or finalized for years.
President Obama has pledged to make the TPP public, but only after it is passed. That is bad policy. The peoples of the TPP nations must be given an opportunity to properly review the agreement.
In terms of developing standards and common frameworks to address intellectual property rights, labor rights, environmental regulations and investor rights on global scale, TPP represents an opportunity to improve economic ties, counteract efforts to use outsourcing to avoid higher standards, and end the degenerative nature of the international community’s lower bidder economy.
To ensure these aspects of TPP are truly beneficial, however, people need a chance to properly review the details and publicly debate the economic merits of the policy changes. At this point, they’ve been given no such opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, the most controversial elements of TPP are its free-trade provisions. Because TPP is essentially a supersized version of NAFTA when it comes to eliminating tariffs, the ongoing criticism of NAFTA must be seriously considered when debating TPP. By making it cheaper to produce goods in Mexico, where regulations are far looser, living standards are lower, taxes are low and government is weak, NAFTA helped deleverage American and Mexican workers as well as the economic sovereignty of the signatory countries.
Faced with a growing income gap, burgeoning national debts, and never ending economic uncertainty, TPP cannot be dealt with as a side-burner issue at a time when the world is far too distracted by escalating crises. Furthermore, the U.S. and the other TPP nations can still combat rising Chinese influence and growing Chinese aggression without embracing this pact.
China and Russia’s “normal trade relations” status with TPP members, European non-TPP members, Middle Eastern countries and others can be downgraded to give China less of an advantage in the agreement. Doing so would accomplish the key goal, shared by many nations, of limiting Chinese economic influence at a time when China is economically weakening without inflicting the pain of free trade onto the average citizens of signatory countries.
The question for TPP member states is whether they actually want to agree to limit Chinese influence and protect their peoples from the ills of free trade. At this point, clear answers are still elusive.