TPP Meetings in Toronto Look to Set Stage for Hanoi Talks

4 May 2017

Senior officials from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries met in Toronto, Canada, on 2-3 May for preparatory discussions on next steps before a ministers’ level gathering in Hanoi, Vietnam, later this month.

In focus during these talks is how to proceed with the TPP, given the US’ withdrawal earlier this year under the new administration of President Donald Trump. Ministers already met during a larger conference in Viña del Mar, Chile, in March to begin weighing possible next steps for the accord. (See Bridges Weekly, 16 March 2017)

Ciobo says renegotiation unlikely

Speaking to Bloomberg Daybreak this week, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo suggested that a renegotiation of the TPP would be unlikely, given the current balance of trade-offs within the deal.

“Look I don’t think so. I mean if we tried to start unpicking certain threads we run the risk of the whole thing falling apart again,” said the Australian trade chief.

“Now certainly not having United States in there changes the equation, the matrix that some people have, and some countries have adopted, but by the same token we’re all at the starting line. Everyone’s there,” he continued, suggesting that whether the deal moves forward will involve a mix of political will and advancing domestic ratification.

Other reports have suggested that some countries are interested in potentially reopening the deal, or potentially adding new countries to the mix to balance out the loss of the US’ economic heft.

Ciobo also generally ruled out the likelihood of the US changing its stance on its TPP membership, while noting that many other major players in the planned trade deal are still showing a strong interest in moving it forward.

“I think that there’s a lot of benefit from it. I know New Zealand thinks the same thing. Canada thinks the same thing. If Japan – and they have been ventilating that they’re open to a TPP 11 – I mean, if Japan was there, then we probably get Mexico and we know that the Peruvians and the Chileans are on board as well, so I think that it’s possible to get this deal,” he continued.

US Vice President Mike Pence said last month during a trip to Asia that the current administration view TPP as a “thing of the past,” and said instead that Washington will focus on negotiating new or improved bilateral deals with its trading partners, in line with Trump’s preferred approach in this area. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 April 2017)

Trump has since ordered a review of existing trade deals and potential “violations,” to be conducted under the US Secretary of Commerce. (For more on that executive order, see related story, this edition)

Another factor in the talks will be the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a decades-old accord involving the US, Canada, and Mexico. Some trade observers say that the difficult political nature of those talks could have some ramifications for the TPP 11 revival efforts, given that Canada and Mexico are also part of the TPP.

APEC meetings

While Ciobo did not commit to a timeframe, some officials are reportedly aiming to reach a deal on next steps by November this year, with Japan said to be among those pushing for that outcome. Negotiators from the Asian economic giant told Kyodo News this week that Japan is in favour of a “TPP 11” approach moving forward.

The November timeframe would be in time for the annual meeting of leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) coalition, which will be held in Da Nang, Vietnam, from 10-11 November.

APEC trade ministers will be meeting in Hanoi from 20-21 May, which is slated to see a meeting of TPP ministers minus the US on the margins.

The larger APEC meetings being led by Vietnam have as their theme “Creating New Dynamism, Fostering a Shared Future,” and Vietnamese officials have flagged boosting trade and investment – particularly through greater regional integration – as one of their main priorities, in line with the 2020 Bogor goals.

The APEC Bogor goals refer to commitments made in 1994 during a meeting in the Indonesian city, which set objectives and targets for achieving “free trade and investment” for developed and developing countries, with the timeframe of the year 2010 for the former group and 2020 for the latter.

The group has regularly reviewed the progress being made toward these goals, issuing updated reports every couple of years. It has also been examining options for a “Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific,” or FTAAP, and APEC officials have said in the past that TPP and other regional efforts could help serve as building blocks for such a project.

Meanwhile, talks on a separate endeavour known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) resumed this week in the Philippines and are due to continue through 12 May. That 16-country project involves the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its six FTA partners, and the group has lately said that they are hoping to see a deal this year. That partnership includes some of the TPP’s members.

ICTSD reporting; “Pacific trade negotiators meet to explore pact without U.S.,” KYODO NEWS, 3 May 2017; “Talks kick off on ‘TPP 11’ pact minus US,” NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW, 3 May 2017; “TPP countries kick-start discussions towards implementing the pact without US,” STRAITS TIMES, 2 May 2017.

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