THE OBAMA administration released the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement at 4 a.m. on Nov. 5 — and it did not take long for critics to pass judgment. Having previously (and hyperbolically) taken the administration to task for negotiating the 12-nation deal in secret, they promptly denounced the actual text as a job-destroying sellout to corporations that threatens the environment, human rights and health. “In the end the TPP was worse than we thought it would be,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) declared, in a news release issued within eight hours of the 4,500-page document’s release.
We do not absorb quite as quickly as Mr. Pocan, but we have now gone through the TPP’s reams of legalese, which, ponderous as they may be, probably bear still more inspection in the days ahead — by the media, interest groups and Congress, which will have to pass the ultimate judgment. Like the critics, we see no big surprises. Where we part ways with them, of course, is in our view that the now-public agreement is, as advertised, a probable net plus for the United States and the Pacific Rim as a whole.
Lost in much of the debate, but eye-glazingly evident in the document’s massive tables, is its central purpose: to slash or eliminate 18,000 tariffs on goods flowing among the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand and seven other countries. This is especially important with regard to Japan, which has never before entertained so much discussion of its notorious protectionism. We would have preferred even greater reductions in Japan’s tariffs, to take effect even more swiftly (though the text does call for absolutely no tariffs on bats, rodents, crocodiles and alligators!). Yet Japan’s acceptance of lower beef tariffs and increased importation of milk and rice represents genuine change that will benefit U.S. farmers even as it helps Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake up his country’s moribund agricultural sector.
The TPP will, accordingly, bring the United States and Japan closer in a region perennially troubled by their common rival, China. It will also bind America closer to Vietnam, which is more concerning given that country’s authoritarian one-party politics. The deal does not guarantee more human rights in Vietnam. A side agreement does, however, include apparently firm requirements that Vietnam legalize independent trade unions, on pain of postponed U.S. tariff reductions. Pre-TPP, Vietnamese workers could not hope to leverage even that modest level of international protection. With constant, forthright U.S. pressure, this crack in Vietnam’s wall against dissent could widen.
Another contentious point in the deal was its incorporation of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement like those already included in 3,000 agreements among 180 countries, including 50 agreements to which the United States is a party. In a nutshell, this would enable foreign investors from TPP member states to press their claims against local government in arbitration rather than the courts, where the latter might be stacked against them due to corruption or politics. Responding to objections that this would give businesses a weapon to undo health and safety regulations, in the United States and elsewhere, the TPP text expressly enshrines the right to regulate in the public interest, opens arbitration proceedings to greater public scrutiny and participation and assigns complaining companies a burden of proof.
TPP foes of both parties have condemned the deal for its failure to address currency manipulation — the practice by which certain countries artificially depress their currencies so as to boost exports at U.S. expense. The TPP’s text reveals that, indeed, it does not purport to prohibit this practice, in which Japan has engaged in the past (as has China, a non-TPP country). But this omission is entirely appropriate. Any agreement that intruded so deeply on the monetary policies of the member states, the United States included, would have been rejected by all — in the unlikely event currency manipulation could have been reduced to an intelligible, legally binding definition in the first place. Differences over currencies are best handled through diplomacy; and, through a side agreement, the TPP negotiations produced promises to avoid unfair currency practices and a first-of-its-kind forum through which countries can press complaints as they arise.
Complaints regarding currency manipulation are characteristic of many objections to the TPP in that they essentially accuse the agreement of failing to solve problems — human rights, health, climate change — that trade deals are not intended, or even well-suited, to solve. It is true, of course, that trade affects all those areas and is affected by them. And the TPP, to a far greater degree than previous pacts, tries to account for that fact. But at the end of the day, it is an agreement that seeks to facilitate the free flow of goods, services and investment, to the mutual benefit of hundreds of millions of people. That is the core purpose on which the TPP should ultimately be judged and, we hope, ratified.