Politics & Policy

What’s Next for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Container ship docked at Shanghai, China. (ChinaFotoRress/Getty)
The case for cautious optimism on a trade accord.

So much that is untrue, distorted, and paranoid has been written about the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a new trade accord between the United States and other Pacific powers including Japan, Canada, and Australia — that it is worth revisiting the fundamentals of the proposal as Congress begins considering the recently negotiated final text.

Earlier in the week, a fellow conservative told me that he opposes TPP because he believes that it will stack the terms of trade in favor of China. I have heard this a few times, which is odd: China is not a signatory to TPP. In fact, the unspoken purpose of TPP is to organize an informal bloc in which the United States and our allies take the lead in setting the terms of trade, and the broader economic agenda, in the Pacific economy. While the plain phrasing may sound overly hostile, the purpose of TPP is to ensure that the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand form a heavy economic counterweight against China, taking Singapore, Brunei, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, and Malaysia (and possibly Colombia, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia) along for the ride. If you are worried about Chinese economic domination of Asia and the Pacific, then you probably should be inclined a little toward TPP rather than against it.

Of course, you’ll want to know what’s in it before you make that decision; there have been conflicting reports in U.S. and British newspapers about when the final TPP text will be made public, with some U.K. papers suggesting that it will not be released until at least four years from now. That does not seem to be the case; those who viewed the negotiating documents signed four-year nondisclosure forms regarding the text in progress, not the final text. What is happening right now is a final review of the agreed-upon text, which will take some time (probably a couple of weeks) as lawyers go over every word of a long and complex document that was negotiated in several languages. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters on Monday that the text would be made public in 30 days, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative confirmed that for National Review.

EDITORIAL: Don’t Call It ‘Obamatrade’ 

If Congress was going to pass TPP while keeping the text secret, that would be cause for fierce opposition, regardless of the specifics of the deal — but that is not the case. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or hear on the radio.

As critics of NAFTA and WTO habitually point out, free-trade deals are not exactly about free trade, period. Rather, what they do is establish a legal framework under which trade barriers can be reduced and trade disputes negotiated. As we have seen with NAFTA and WTO, the effect of this is to liberalize the terms of trade over a period of time.

#share#The WTO is by no means perfect, but it does work: China did eliminate its WTO-noncompliance duties and export quotas on rare-earth minerals; India is changing the domestic-content requirements for its solar-energy program. Both of those were the result of challenges by the United States. And the United States and other countries are being obliged to reduce their agricultural subsidies and other protectionist measures. It isn’t that the treaty gets ratified and — BANG! — trade is free, but it does push things in the right direction. In the slow, boring, incremental world of actual governance, that’s how progress happens.

RELATED: How the TPP Would Help America’s Poor

There are aspects of TPP that some people will strongly oppose. People who do not like the strong intellectual-property protections maintained by the United States and other developed countries will not be happy to see them entrenched in TPP. People who don’t like international environmental accords such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships are not going to want to see them fortified or expanded on. The Obama administration is crowing about new protections for fisheries, which presumably will annoy some commercial fishermen. You can shout “Obamatrade!” and “sovereignty!” all you like, but we were party to international environmental standards long before the self-important little man from Chicago came on the scene. We’ve been in MARPOL (the marine-pollution treaty) since 1973, and if an international agreement prohibiting ships from dumping their garbage into the sea is a horrific affront to American sovereignty, the fact never occurred to Ronald Reagan.

Secrecy is generally undesirable in public matters, and the secrecy of TPP negotiations offends my republican sensibilities. It also makes the public distrustful, and not without reason. So we’ll want to scrutinize that language pretty carefully when it is available. But the fact is that sensitive negotiations often are conducted away from the public eye. There’s a reason the NFL doesn’t negotiate contracts in public, and Silicon Valley companies and Wall Street firms are nuts about nondisclosure agreements. It would be better if U.S. government were more open — especially in the many, many matters in which there is no plausible argument for secrecy — but we ought not let that bias us too heavily against TPP.

The moment calls for cautious optimism. No more — but certainly no less.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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