TPP Ministers Gather in Atlanta in Renewed Push for Trade Deal

1 October 2015

Ministers from 12 Pacific Rim countries are in the midst of making another high-stakes push for completing a comprehensive trade deal, with their meetings in the US city of Atlanta currently scheduled to conclude later this week.

Following months of speculation, the ministerial-level meetings in the Southern US city were confirmed by the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) just a week ago, after news broke that talks between the US, Canada, Mexico, and Japan had made sufficient progress on automotive rules of origin to make a ministerial meeting worthwhile, though falling short of a deal on the subject.

The ministerial, which kicked off on Wednesday, was preceded by a meeting of chief negotiators from 26-29 September, also held in Atlanta.

That ministerial is the first one since the end-July meeting in the US state of Hawaii which saw talks falter after disagreements on market access for dairy and sugar, automotive rules of origin, and the length of data exclusivity periods for biologic drugs proved insurmountable. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 August 2015)

Final ministerial?

In the weeks since the Hawaii meeting, opinions on whether the above-mentioned disagreements can be resolved – and if so, under what timeframe and at what political cost – have varied. Whether this will indeed be the last ministerial is also an open question, given the various other failed attempts in recent years at closing the talks.

New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser, for example, raised the possibility late last week that he may skip the ministerial entirely if not enough movement is seen on dairy from the US and Canada, a key issue area for his country.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand last Friday, Groser said that the current dairy offers on the table are “completely inadequate,” adding that the onus is on the other countries to improve what is on the table.

A New Zealand trade official told reporters on Wednesday that chief negotiators have made little progress on dairy and cars, with these issues now in the hands of the ministers.

Despite these difficult areas, Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb has confirmed that approximately 90 percent of TPP issues are already provisionally wrapped up, an assessment that has been shared publicly by other ministers.

"There are unresolved issues, but hopefully these aren’t intractable,” the Australian trade chief said ahead of the Atlanta meetings.

Other officials, such as USTR Michael Froman, have pushed back against the notion that a deal is a necessary outcome from the Atlanta meeting.

“The [US] president has made clear that he will only accept a TPP agreement that delivers for middle-class families, supports jobs, and furthers our national security,” said Froman to reporters. “That’s the bar we have to meet, and we won’t accept anything short of it. The substance of the negotiations will drive the timeline for completion, not the other way around.”

Political backdrop

Despite stressing that the TPP substance will dictate the pace of the talks, Washington officials have reportedly been making a concerted political push at the highest levels to speed up the negotiations and minimise the remaining disagreements in order to pave the way for a strong result in Atlanta.

For example, US President Barack Obama has been in contact over the past week with leaders of various other TPP economies, including Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and President Ollanta Humala of Peru, all of which stressed the importance of bringing the Pacific Rim talks to a swift conclusion.

US Vice President Joe Biden also met on Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, with the two officials agreeing to have their negotiators collaborate closely “with the goal of resolving the limited number of outstanding issues at the upcoming ministers’ meeting in Atlanta,” according to a readout of the talks provided by the White House.

The election timetables in various TPP economies – including the US, Canada, and Peru – have made it particularly pressing for these countries to wrap up their negotiations, if they wish to avoid seeing the talks drift.

Canada is set to hold its general election in just over a fortnight, with the loss of manufacturing jobs playing a major role in the country’s politics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that being a TPP member is essential for his country and has pledged to push forward with the negotiations even amid the contentious election climate.

“Unlike the other parties, we’re not going to walk away from a trade negotiation at the first sign of worry,” the Canadian premier told reporters, stressing the importance of the deal to future jobs.

Meanwhile, the US is gearing up for its November 2016 general election, while also facing a potential Congressional upheaval in light of the recent announcement of the planned resignation this October of Speaker of the House John Boehner. The highest-ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives, Boehner played a key role in helping facilitate the passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) earlier this year.

The difficulties Boehner faced in bringing together the establishment and right-wing elements of his party, which reportedly contributed to his decision to step down, were already clearly evident during the heated debate in Washington earlier this year ahead of TPA’s passage, and are expected to re-emerge if and when TPP comes up for ratification in the US legislature. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 July 2015)

“Here’s the concern politically, is that I think within the Republican Party some of the same impulses that are anti-immigration reform, some of the same impulses that see the entire world as a threat and we’ve got to wall ourselves off, some of those same impulses also start creeping into the trade debate. And a party that traditionally was pro free trade now has a substantial element that may feel differently,” Obama acknowledged earlier this month in remarks to business leaders, noting also the difficulties in getting his own Democratic Party colleagues on board with trade.

If agreed, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as the deal is known, would cover Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam – a group of countries that together make up 40 percent of global GDP.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Obama said that completing the TPP is one way to “promote growth through trade that meets a higher standard.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership, he stressed, “will open markets, while protecting the rights of workers and protecting the environment that enables development to be sustained.”

ICTSD reporting; “White House hopes for final deal in days on Asia-Pacific free-trade accord,” WASHINGTON POST, “Obama’s Pacific trade deal success poised in Atlanta,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 29 September 2015; “Groser unsure whether TPP meeting worthwhile,” RADIO NEW ZEALAND, 25 September 2015; “Little progress on dairy, autos in Atlanta TPP trade talks – NZ official,” REUTERS, 29 September 2015; “Harper defends push for TPP deal despite looming election,” THE GLOBE AND MAIL, 29 September 2015.

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