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Trans-Pacific Trade Talks Grind On

WASHINGTON, Sep 11 2012 (IPS) - The 14th round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proposal for a massive free-trade area spearheaded by the United States, got underway here over the weekend.

The talks are slated to last through the week, with another round scheduled before the end of this year.

But while President Barack Obama initially hoped the negotiations would finish before the November U.S. presidential elections, an update report released on Sunday reported only “encouraging headway”.

In a reference that is sure to frustrate many observers – activists and government officials alike – the report, by trade ministers from each of the nine TPP countries, notes “the active consultations with our stakeholders that we have conducted domestically to obtain input as we further developed our negotiating positions”. According to almost universal observation, the TPP negotiations continue under unusually tight secrecy.

“(M)eetings, extensive preparatory work … have significantly narrowed the gaps between us in a wide range of areas,” the report states, warning that negotiators are “continuing work on other issues where progress has been slower.”

Indeed, the top U.S. trade official, Trade Representative Ron Kirk, now says that the talks could drag on through much of next year. Kirk is also warning that some of the most contentious decisions needed for the talks to progress remain outstanding, and will likely only be taken up next year.

Both President Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, have made increasing U.S. exports central components in their election campaigns, both of which have focused almost exclusively on the state of the U.S. economy, which continues to stutter.

As currently envisaged, the TPP would include at least nine countries – Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam – with Canada and Mexico expected to be formally included on that list later this year.

Japan, meanwhile, remains a potentially lucrative holdout. While the Japanese government has expressed interest in joining the talks, a chaotic political situation at home, coupled with some staunch opposition to joining the TPP, has led the Japanese to bow out of the current talks.

The start of this round of TPP negotiations coincided with the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, this year held in Vladivostok, Russia. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the TPP “central to America’s economic vision in Asia”.

That same day, following a meeting with Clinton, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that, with multiple outstanding issues remaining to be resolved, both the United States and Malaysia were now looking to wrap up talks on the TPP only by the end of 2013.

The 14th round is also the first negotiations to take place following the end-August meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at which the representatives gathered announced plans to move forward with a China-led Asia-only free-trade area.

While the United States says it hopes China would eventually join the TPP, Beijing is not currently part of the talks. The Asia-only discussions, meanwhile, do not look set to include Washington, but are reportedly actively wooing Japan.

While Trade Representative Kirk has noted that the United States does not “begrudge” the movement towards an Asia-only trade agreement, he has indicated optimism that the TPP talks would conclude before the Asia-only framework gets off the ground – and warns that significant progress needs to be made during the current round of discussions.

Stifling secrecy

Ultimately, what fires both optimism and fierce criticism regarding the TPP is its open-ended nature, with U.S. officials suggesting that new countries could continue to be added to the agreement’s framework down the road.

Already, the countries under the TPP would encompass around a third of international economic productivity, and the possibility of a further expansion leads many critics to warn that the negative aspects of other U.S.-led free-trade agreements – on labour rights, on the environment, on small-scale business and agriculture – could be far more widespread under any eventual TPP agreement.

Advocates are warning that the United States is attempting to impose overly strict interpretations of intellectual property rights and copyright on the rest of the bloc, with a host of incumbent negative impacts on issues from generic medicines to the Internet’s openness. Other provisions would, in certain instances, preference a corporation over a country’s own laws.

The most significant issue, however, supersedes each of these others: the secrecy with which the TPP negotiations have taken place throughout the talks process. Thus, while inklings of the countries’ positions on the varying issues have come to light through brief public statements and leaked documents, the details of how the talks are progressing are known only to the negotiators and the corporations that have been given access to the draft documents.

According to activists, of the 600 advisors that the U.S. negotiators have used surrounding the talks, 84 percent have been corporate interests.

Indeed, not only has there been an ongoing lack of direct civil-society involvement in the TPP process, but progress in the negotiations has been kept secret from even the U.S. Congress. With the start of the 14th round of talks this weekend, a bipartisan letter was sent from Congress to Trade Representative Kirk, insisting “in the strongest terms possible” that Kirk’s office publicise details on what is being discussed, specifically with regards to intellectual property rights.

Members of Congress have sent similar letters to Kirk in recent months, calling for greater openness in the TPP discussions as well as demanding to be allowed access to the negotiations. At least once, such requests have been denied, on the rationale that the issues at stake are too sensitive and complex.

On Sunday, Kirk’s office held a meeting between stakeholders and negotiators – only the second such session in the 14 rounds of talks. According to official figures, participation levels jumped by nearly 50 percent over the previous such session, indicating extremely high interest in the proceedings.

In the event, some 450 registered stakeholders had just three hours in which to interact with negotiators.

“Even when the USTR provides a forum for stakeholder presentations and tables, no negotiator is really willing to engage in a real dialogue with us,” Reshmi Rangnath, with Public Knowledge, a watchdog group, told IPS following the interaction.

“Because the presentations and tables were simultaneous, effectively participating in both was very difficult. It left me wondering how negotiators could listen to relevant presentations and also discuss these issues with those who had set up tables. So, until the process becomes more open, we have no way to really gauge how our input is being received.”

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