Getting 40 percent of the world's economy on the same page

U.S. Treasury Timothy Geithner (back C) chairs the finance ministers meeting with guests from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Nov. 10, 2011.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, you’re likely to hear President Obama mention the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, in his State of the Union address tonight. Getting this global trade agreement signed is a big deal for the president, and an important part of his pivot to Asia. It covers 12 Asia-Pacific countries and 40 percent of the world’s economy.

But if you thought the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement was bad 20 years ago, this one could be worse.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been called NAFTA on steroids. And NAFTA was already pretty brawny back in the day. So were the debates it produced.

“I think it’s going to be as challenging, or perhaps even more,” says Mireya Solis, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She thinks the U.S. stands to gain a lot from the TPP, but she says, “NAFTA left deep scars in this country. You know, American trade politics were very much influenced by the NAFTA debate.”

The TPP pushes more than traditional hot button trade issues like labor and outsourcing. NAFTA didn’t really touch the internet. The TPP does. And during NAFTA, you didn’t have Wikileaks publishing drafts from closed-door talks, particularly on intellectual property.

Maira Sutton is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She worries copyright protections in the TPP would empower internet service providers, “to police users’ internet activities. So therefore they could block or filter or even spy on users’ activities to supposedly enforce copyright,” she says.

The intellectual property leak, among others, also helped mobilize groups like Doctors Without Borders around patent protection. 

“Many of the generics that we currently use for the treatment of infectious diseases come in fact from Asia,” says Judit Rius, who is with the group’s access campaign, adding that the TPP would make it easier to extend pharmaceutical patents, decreasing access to cheaper generic drugs. Many generics come from India, which isn’t in the TPP now. But Rius says an agreement this big would create global norms for intellectual property.

“So the goal is not only to change the laws on the 12 countries that are negotiating, but really to change the laws in the whole Asia-Pacific region,” she says.

We don’t know what will be in the final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Brookings scholar Mireya Solis sees another hurdle that didn’t exist for NAFTA: Tea Party Republicans who like trade expansion, but don’t want to give the president discretion to shape it.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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