Seeking trust in new agreement

  • Opinion
  • Saturday, 28 Nov 2015

Rewriting the rules: Obama speaking while meeting with current and former diplomatic and national security officials to discuss the TPP in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC recently. The TPP will make it easier for American entrepreneurs, farmers, and small business owners to sell Made-In-America products abroad by eliminating more than 18,000 taxes and other trade barriers. – Bloomberg

GUESS what this is. To the Japanese, it’s a key pillar of the national growth strategy. Canberra believes it has great potential to drive job-creating growth across the Australian economy.

Singapore is looking forward to the new trade and investment opportunities it’ll create for the island state. The Canadian government says it’ll increase the country’s foothold in the Asia-Pacific, while Mexico describes it as “of utmost importance”.

And New Zealand reckons it can safeguard the country’s longer-term trading interests.

So what does Malaysia have to say about this wondrous “it”?

It, says the Government, will help “to open up new market opportunities and horizons for Malaysians to go on the offensive and take advantage of the international marketplace”.

What is this thing that can apparently do so much for so many? The White House calls it President Barack Obama’s trade agreement, but the rest of us know it better as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

It’s interesting how the US government positions the pact so as to build domestic backing for it. The chief flag-waving selling point here is that the agreement will support American jobs and growth, bolster US leadership in the Asia-Pacific, and promote US values.

“(The) TPP will make it easier for American entrepreneurs, farmers, and small business owners to sell Made-In-America products abroad by eliminating more than 18,000 taxes and other trade barriers on American products across the 11 other countries in the TPP — barriers that put American products at an unfair disadvantage today,” says the White House on its website.

On the leadership aspect, the Office of the US Trade Representative says: “The rules of the road are up for grabs in Asia. If we don’t pass this agreement and write those rules, competitors will set weak rules of the road, threatening American jobs and workers while undermining US leadership in Asia.”

Adds the White House: “With the TPP, we can rewrite the rules of trade to benefit America’s middle class. Because if we don’t, competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in to fill that void.”

It’s nothing less than an incredible win-win situation when a trade agreement that’s seemingly a fantastic deal for the United States, can also inspire plenty of optimism among the 11 other countries that have come together to negotiate the terms.

Proponents of free trade are likely to argue that such a thing is possible when the international flow of goods and services is unhindered by market barriers and every economy can specialise in what it does best.

But free trade in pure form is elusive. In fact, it’s common for trade negotiators to come to the table with lists of areas that must be excluded from the talks or that need to be given concessions.

Ultimately, each of the 12 countries – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and yes, the United States – has to be convinced that signing the TPP will be a good thing, especially in the long-run. And part of that process includes addressing the concerns of its people and businesses.

This explains the US government’s strategy for selling the TPP to the American audience, which was crafted to suit the politics and public mood of the day.

The Malaysian government has promised to constantly engage with stakeholders on the agreement. On Oct 5, after negotiations on the TPP had been concluded, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed said the decision on whether Malaysia would sign the agreement would only be made after “full and extensive discussions within the country”.

“Let me reiterate that whether or not Malaysia becomes a party to the TPP will be a collective decision. Once the complete and official text of the agreement is prepared, it will be in the public domain and presented to Parliament for debate. We will also hold full consultations with interested parties and the public,” he added.

The text of the agreement, running into hundreds of pages, was posted online on Nov 5. It will be tabled in Parliament for debate in January or February.

The Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia and accounting firm PwC Malaysia have each produced a cost-benefit analysis on the impact of the TPP that will be discussed by the Cabinet. It’s not known how much of the reports will be made public.

But it’s clear that the TPP is indeed the “comprehensive, 21st century free-trade agreement” it’s touted to be.

The website of Singapore’s Trade and Industry Ministry lists the five defining features of the TPP. The first is that it provides comprehensive market access by eliminating or reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers “across substantially all trade in goods and services and covers the full spectrum of trade”.

In addition, the TPP adopts a regional approach to commitments, addresses new trade challenges (such as the development of the digital economy, and the role of state-owned enterprises in the global economy), and promotes inclusive trade by including “new elements that seek to ensure that economies at all levels of development and businesses of all sizes can benefit from trade”.

The fifth new element is that the TPP is meant to be a platform for regional economic integration and is designed to take on new partner from the Asia-Pacific.

The TPP is also a next-generation trade pact in the sense that it incorporates what the White House describes as tough and fully-enforceable standards to protect workers’ rights and the environment. The US administration says this reflects “our American values”.

For the Malaysian Government, a major challenge is to communicate to the public that the TPP matches our values too. Yes, trade is basically about dollars and cents, but the perception of the TPP is tinged with emotions. Malaysians need to be assured that signing the TPP is the right thing to do. And that’s a matter of trust, hope and confidence.

Executive editor Errol Oh pledges to one day read the entire TPP text. Hopefully, that’ll happen this year.

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