National Column: Reworked TPP could be trade deal of the future

by Thomas Walkom

In Canada, all eyes are on Donald Trump and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Will the mercurial U.S. president sandbag the deal? Or is his hard line just a negotiating ploy?

What will Canada do if NAFTA is shelved? Would the end of free trade with the U.S. be a disaster? A temporary inconvenience? A plus?

These questions are debated ad nauseam.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, another set of talks is going on that is potentially far more important.

These are the talks over the truncated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Originally envisioned as a 12-nation pact centred on the United States, the TPP fell off the radar in January after a newly elected Trump pulled America out of the just-finalized deal.

Without U.S. participation, it seemed, there was no reason for the other 11 countries – Canada, Japan, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Chile and Peru to carry on.

Canada, for instance, had entered the original talks reluctantly and only because it feared that a TPP, which included both the U.S. and Mexico, might outflank NAFTA. With the U.S. out of the game, that fear evaporated.

But thanks largely to Japan, the TPP – now known as the TPP-11 – soldiered on. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees multilateral trade deals as the country’s salvation, the only way to pull Japan from the economic doldrums.

In particular, it wants so-called rules-based deals that give advanced economies, such as Japan’s, an edge over those such as China’s, which focus on cheap labour.

To that end, Japan has tried the keep the original TPP text intact – in the hope that America can be persuaded to join once its infatuation with Trumpism has ended.

Some other members of the 11, including Canada, are more interested in using America’s absence to renegotiate elements of the deal that they don’t like.

The original TPP, for instance, would have allowed member countries to obtain up to 65 per cent of their auto parts from cheap-labour countries outside the pact.

It also would have raised the price of some drugs and limited the ability of governments to enact cultural and intellectual-property policies that are deemed to interfere with trade.

The original TPP text contained language on labour and environmental rights. But CBC reports that Canada wants more, as well as a chapter on gender rights.

Where all of this will go is unclear. Officials from the TPP-11 are meeting in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang prior to the arrival of leaders this weekend for the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

Japan wants an agreement on the TPP-11 by then. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s in no rush. Indeed, Canada’s preoccupation with NAFTA has left the government little time to focus on other trade deals.

But this one is important. Like all such deals, it is about more than trade. It is about forming economic blocs.

NAFTA was designed to form an economic bloc centred on the U.S. Similarly, China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to which Canada belongs) is designed to form an economic bloc centred on Beijing. The Eurasian Economic Union is a bloc centred on Russia.

The TPP-11, at least in its current configuration, is not centred on any big power. Japan has the largest economy in the group. But for reasons of history, it is reluctant to act like an imperial nation.

If the obvious shortcomings of the original TPP – including the problems posed by cheap labour in some countries – can be fixed, this would be an interesting bloc to belong to. It is made up of middling powers. It focuses on one of the growth areas of the world. For the foreseeable future at least, it bypasses Washington.

In that sense, and unlike NAFTA, it has the potential to be the trade deal of the future.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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