Rushing Backwards: Why Hastening the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement Will Hurt Us

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Written by Akela Lacy, Contributor

As the only non-governmental official overseer of the APEC CEO Summit’s operating process, Pacific Economic Cooperation Council co-chair Jusuf Wanandi is forewarning of a “dilemma” at this year’s meeting in Bali stemming from debates over competing regional trade agreements, mainly those surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Over the past few years the proposed agreement has attracted international criticism concerning lack of transparency surrounding its negotiation and drafting, especially in Japan’s agricultural and food safety sectors and most recently in the U.S. Congress. Earlier in June Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter to the newly-elected U.S. Trade Representative Michael Frohman asking if in his term he would disclose a copy of the sweeping regulatory agreement to the public.

Senator Warren is one on a long list of actors in the U.S., including public health organizations, public interest lawyers, state leaders, and representatives alike who are vocalizing concern about the potentially negative effects that the TPP could have on domestic industries and regulatory policies in participant nations. Those critiquing the agreement are doing so from allegedly leaked documents and therefore unconfirmed sources, but abridged versions of the agreement that have been confirmed and released to global businesses and state leaders as well as certain members of Congress deserve a thoughtful and critical assessment in terms of their stipulations which extend far beyond the traditionally simplified definition of trade.

Nations participating in TPP negotiations are expected upon its finalization to conform to domestic policy standards governed by those members leading the discussions. This requirement, though aimed at economic reinvigoration, instead effectively circumvents the people of countries in negotiation from exercising their democratic rights to have a say in domestic policy. The TPP’s projected structuring would give transnational corporations the power to sue national governments in countries where they operate for non-compliance with regulatory provisions mandated by the country from which the company operates. A foreign company operating overseas would have the legal option and the power to overturn domestically agreed-upon policies in order to operate in a more efficient and lucrative manner. These corporate-nation suits would be tried in international tribunals with the power to override domestic environmental, health, and intellectual property regulations to further the interests of foreign corporations.

Beyond these somewhat morally-founded concerns, there are also those more basically grounded in economics. In theory the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement has the potential to cement the emerging and mutually beneficial trade bloc between Australia, Brunei, Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam. However the proposed decreases in barriers to trade and foreign investment have a historically exhibited tendency to flood domestic markets with cheap foreign goods, decreasing demand for domestically produced goods, and threatening jobs at home.

These consequences may not necessarily be expressly intended by the powers in negotiation, but they cannot be ignored. Although the TPP’s publicized aims are to eliminate barriers to trade in order to further integrate economies in the largest proposed trade bloc in the world, its provisions for conformity to a certain standard of policies amount to a somewhat misguided one-size-fits-all approach to economic integration. Although similar free trade agreements in the past have increased participant nations’ GDPs with foreign investment, there is also evidence of job displacement, decrease in national investment, and socioeconomic inequality perpetuated by a shift of demand from labor-intensive goods to capital-intensive goods–decreasing wages for laborers and increasing profit for those already gaining it.

And then there are the copyright issues. Given recent public dismay with online privacy breaches and federal disposition towards the issue in the U.S., the TTP provisions for intellectual property are surprisingly and a bit disproportionately strict. Many critics of the TPP agreement contend that pharmaceutical, computer, and entertainment companies will benefit more from the pact than the publics of participating nations. The TPP’s intellectual property provisions would require member nations to adopt many strict copyright laws and effectively criminalize minor infractions with jail time rather than liability to the copyright owner. It would also give internet service providers (ISPs) the ability to track even blurred instances of user copyright infringement with a “three-strike” test, allowing the ISP to bar the customer from service after three recorded “violations”.

Given the modernly lowered barriers to content sharing and a general public desensitization to exactly what behavior counts as infringement and what is considered legal for one-time use versus repeated illegal reproduction, these provisions allow for extremely disproportionate responses to minor violations of inextricably complicated laws imposed by foreign governments.

These intellectual property laws also extend beyond the sphere of internet usage and privacy into the pharmaceutical world, producing relevant concerns for public health. If member nations are required to conform to a standard set of copyright laws based on the domestic protectionist policies of leading negotiators, they are effectively barring their own domestic pharmaceutical companies from reproducing drugs at appropriate prices for their consumer bases, and relegating the public’s only choice to expensive and therefore out of reach drugs produced by foreign companies. Both the UN Development Program and UNAIDS have issued reports urging global powers not to join the TTP under these terms, specifying “financing policies and intellectual property standards that inflate the price of medications…granting pharmaceutical companies long-term monopolies on live saving medications” which leave “poor citizens…denied [of] lifesaving treatments”.

Those involved in TPP negotiations are calling for a finalized agreement by the end of this year. Given the ever-growing public concern over the pact’s implications for democratic practices, individual internet use and global access to medicine, there seems to be an evident need for further deliberation. The last thing our global community needs is a rushed agreement that will set the educated and affluent further and further apart from those struggling to survive. Upon their election our leaders accepted responsibility to do what is best for the people; rushing TPP is not the answer.

This article was originally published in the 2013 special annual APEC CEO Summit Magazine. Published with permission.

Photo: elrentaplats (cc).