Trade aficionados may be treated to some positive spin concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations on the sidelines of the forthcoming G-20 Summit, which will be held in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18-19. President Barack Obama and Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, seem to be ready to announce that Mexico will join the TPP talks. There is a possibility — not considered a probability, as this article went to press — that Canada and Japan would also be invited to join the negotiations. More likely, Obama will say that while both Tokyo and Ottawa are not quite ready to participate, they are making progress and he looks forward to welcoming them into the TPP talks as soon as they are ready, hopefully by the end of this year. The White House spinmeisters will portray whatever happens in Los Cabos as another illustration that the US continues to exercise leadership aimed at expanding trade flows in the fastest-growing part of the world. It is safe to predict that there will be repeated references to the exciting TPP success story from candidate Obama until the Nov. 6 presidential election.
[As this article went to press, all that seemed clear was that the White House was positioned to welcome the Mexicans into the TPP next week, or at least before Mexico’s presidential elections on July 1. Much thought in the administration seemed to be focused on how to explain the inevitable awkward questions as to why Canada, like Mexico a Nafta member, would be excluded. White House economic adviser Michael Froman was believed prepared to play a blame game, portraying the Canadians (and Japanese) as lacking the political will to negotiate a fast-moving, high-standard 21st century TPP deal. At a recent appearance before an audience of Washington insiders convened by the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies, Froman spoke of trade “tensions” with both Ottawa and Tokyo, but (unconvincingly) denied that any decision to keep them out had been made. A spokeswoman for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk declined to comment. There there also seemed to be quite a bit of intense behind-the-scenes high-level jockeying going on this week, raising the possibility that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Japanese PM Yoshihiko Noda were perhaps privately-but-firmly going to take Obama to the mat over their TPP accession — hoping to avoid their humiliation in Los Cabos. Of course, both the Canadians and Japanese have been widely criticized for foot-dragging on trade liberalization in recent years. Still, the buzz around town has focused on the question as to whether the Obama White House really has earned the right to decide whether other countries can be trusted to deliver on enhanced market-opening moves. Especially in the TPP context, a perceived American negotiating intransigence is widely believed to explain why the TPP negotiations are not on track to be concluded this year, as previously promised.]
Regardless of how the issue of possible TPP participation involving the Mexicans, Canadians and Japanese plays out at the G-20 Summit, or perhaps soon thereafter, there are some fundamental concerns about where the TPP process is heading that haven’t received the public attention they seem to deserve. Serious diplomatic observers say privately that while the U.S. is moving to strengthen its military and security ties throughout Asia, they worry that America’s economic influence in the region could be on the decline.
Let’s take a closer look at why the worries about the U.S. approach to the TPP is raising such geo-political concerns.