America’s Threat to Trans-Pacific Trade

MUMBAI – As if undermining the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of global free-trade talks was not bad enough (the last ministerial meeting in Geneva produced barely a squeak), the United States has compounded its folly by actively promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). President Barack Obama announced this with nine Asian countries during his recent trip to the region.

The TPP is being sold in the US to a compliant media and unsuspecting public as evidence of American leadership on trade. But the opposite is true, and it is important that those who care about the global trading system know what is happening. One hopes that this knowledge will trigger what I call the “Dracula effect”: expose that which would prefer to remain hidden to sunlight and it will shrivel up and die.

The TPP is a testament to the ability of US industrial lobbies, Congress, and presidents to obfuscate public policy. It is widely understood today that free-trade agreements (FTAs), whether bilateral or plurilateral (among more than two countries but fewer than all) are built on discrimination. That is why economists typically call them preferential-trade agreements (PTAs). And that is why the US government’s public-relations machine calls what is in fact a discriminatory plurilateral FTA, a “partnership” invoking a false aura of cooperation and cosmopolitanism.

Countries are, in principle, free to join the TPP. Japan and Canada have said they plan to do so. But a closer look reveals that China is not a part of this agenda. The TPP is also a political response to China's new aggressiveness, built therefore in a spirit of confrontation and containment, not of cooperation.