The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement Just Won’t Die

Source: In These Times

New Zealand and other signatories are quietly reviving the neoliberal trade deal, confident the political winds in the U.S. will shift.

Months ago, the just-inaugurated President Trump signed a memorandum pulling the United States out of the agreement, following an election season in which the TPP had served as a bipartisan whipping boy. News outlets the world over proclaimed the deal dead. The leader of the largest remaining signatory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, appeared to sum up the prevailing sentiment when he told reporters after Trump’s win that “the TPP would be meaningless” without the world’s largest economy.

Never count a good neoliberal trade deal out. The agreement’s architects have been determined to electrify the TPP’s moribund body back to life, and appear to have succeeded—complete with a plan to get the United States’ elusive signature.

At a trade forum hosted by Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vietnam in late May, the 11 signatories—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam—got together to discuss the future of the TPP. They came away from the two-day summit with an agreement to keep the deal alive.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthzier was none too happy, and maintained that the U.S. was out of the agreement for good. “The United States pulled out of the TPP and it’s not going to change that decision,” he said at a news conference.

The rest of the TPP signatories don’t seem to be buying that, however. Various stakeholders have made clear they’re negotiating the deal under the assumption that the political winds in the United States will shift.

“There’s a collective interest in maintaining the agreement in a way that the U.S. could sign up to in the future,” New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English told Radio New Zealand on May 17. He also told current affairs program Q+A that it was important to keep those features negotiated by the United States in the deal, as “it increases the likelihood that the U.S. would be incentivized to join it later.”

Following the talks in Vietnam, Australian trade minister Steven Ciobo told reporters “It may not suit U.S. interests at this point in time to be part of the TPP, but circumstances might change in the future.”

The strategy seems clear: With a President Trump and a U.S. voting public that dislikes the TPP, trying to involve the United States in the negotiations now isn’t politically viable. Instead, the remaining 11 countries will keep the deal alive and wage a war of attrition, waiting for Trump to leave and be replaced by another Republican or centrist Democrat, who will promptly attempt to ratify it.

How did the deal go from dead in the water to viable in just four short months? Much of the push has come from New Zealand, whose center-right National government played a leading role in forging the deal. After Trump’s January 23 presidential memorandum the agreement’s signatories scrambled to find some way to ensure the seven years they had spent negotiating the deal wasn’t for nought. Australia and New Zealand floated the idea of urging China and other Asian countries to join.

On February 7, Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the New Zealand International Business Forum and former head of the USNZ Council—an organization that worked with the New Zealand government to promote the TPP—gave a speech to the Asia Forum in which he suggested “some quiet diplomacy … to see if the remaining 11 parties, or a subset of them, see merit in amending TPP to take account of U.S. withdrawal.” Over the past few months, New Zealand trade minister Todd McClay embarked on a whirlwind tour of TPP signatories in order to convince them to stay the course. One stop was the May 17 trip to Japan with Prime Minister English, which earned them a commitment from Abe to an “early realization of TPP.”

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