TPP Chief Negotiators Conclude Hawaii Meet as Washington Debate Continues

19 March 2015

Chief negotiators from the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries wrapped up a weeklong meeting in the US state of Hawaii on Sunday evening, as part of a concerted push to conclude an agreement in the coming months.

Trade observers had been looking to the 9-15 March meet both for any announcements of progress on difficult areas, as well as any news of when a meeting of trade ministers might take place for making the tough political decisions needed to finalise a deal.

However, no announcement has been made yet of a possible date or location of the much-awaited TPP ministerial. Furthermore, the date and location of any subsequent chief negotiators’ meeting had not been confirmed at press time, with a statement on the Canadian Department on Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development website noting only that intersessional work will occur in the coming weeks.

Among the topics discussed last week, the statement said, were market access, intellectual property, rules of origin, state-owned enterprises, and textiles.

TPA breakthrough forthcoming?

Meanwhile, the debate in Washington over both the TPP’s merits and the broader Obama trade agenda has shown little sign of abating in recent weeks, with reports indicating that the stalled negotiations on Trade Promotion Authority may soon advance.

Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), otherwise known as “fast track,” allows the US executive branch to submit completed international trade deals to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, without amendments. It also allows US lawmakers to set negotiating objectives for such agreements.

The previous version of TPA expired in 2007, and without it, analysts say, US trading partners are unlikely to make their toughest concessions in negotiations such as TPP.

The US is the largest economy in the Pacific Rim trade talks, followed by Japan, and officials say that the push to conclude the TPP negotiations this year stems partly from the apparent “political window” to ratify a final agreement before the preparations for the 2016 US presidential elections get underway.

US President Barack Obama’s administration has said in recent weeks that it aims to conclude the TPP negotiations with its partners this year, with some trade officials from other member countries suggesting a deal within the coming months. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 March 2015)

“There’s no deadline, but there’s every prospect within the next two months that an agreement will be reached, because it’s then got to go through political processes in 12 different countries, including the US which won’t be easy,” said Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb in an interview with ABC Radio. 

“But it is a 21st century remarkable agreement, so hopefully we can get there in the next two months, if we don’t I think it’ll have to wait until after the US election,” the Australian official said.

However, negotiations in Washington on TPA reportedly hit a snag earlier this month, with US Senator Orrin Hatch declaring them “stuck” and suggesting a bill might not be ready for congressional consideration before April. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 March 2015)

Hatch, a Republican from Utah who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has been negotiating draft TPA language with his Democratic counterpart on that panel, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, along with Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Wyden has reportedly been pushing for a mechanism in TPA that would allow lawmakers to revoke “fast-track” consideration if a trade deal is found not to meet the objectives outlined by Congress. The suggestion has been publicly rejected by Hatch, warning of the impact on the US’ negotiating power with its partners.

“We’ve given them all kinds of changes,” Hatch said on Tuesday, referring to his Democratic colleagues. “We’ve reached the point where I’m not going to diminish the workability of TPA.”

However, the US senator also suggested that the TPA talks have lately been “making headway,” telling reporters that he met with Obama this week on the subject.

Winning the backing of Democrats has been one of the biggest challenges for TPA supporters. While the proposed policy has significant Republican support, the pushback against Obama’s overall agenda from more conservative wings of the party has made it essential to win some Democratic votes in Congress.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat in her chamber, said on Tuesday that she hopes to find a path to “yes” on these trade deals, highlighting the importance of learning more about the TPP and other such agreements before making any decisions, according to comments reported by congressional newspaper The Hill.

Upcoming meetings?

With no set date for a ministerial in sight, speculation has built over other potential opportunities for TPP members to give a political push to the negotiations.

One major event on the calendar is the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the US in late April, with meetings scheduled with Obama among others.

Japanese economy minister Akira Amari said this week that he is aiming to reach a bilateral deal with the US within the TPP context before Abe’s visit to Washington, according to comments reported by the Reuters news agency.

Obama’s own trip to Asia last year, which included a visit to Tokyo, had served as an opportunity for the US leader to hold a series of TPP-related meetings, despite the ultimate lack of a breakthrough on the US-Japan bilateral talks on agriculture and automobiles. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 May 2014)

Trade ministers from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries are also set to meet in the Philippines from 23-24 May. The 21-country APEC group includes all 12 TPP members, and past APEC meetings at both the ministerial and leaders’ level have traditionally served as opportunities for TPP participants to gather on the sidelines.

ICTSD reporting; “House Dems ramping up engagement on trade,” THE HILL, 17 March 2015; “UPDATE 2-U.S. Senate’s Hatch says making progress on fast-track trade talks,” REUTERS, 16 March 2015; “Senator Hatch Seeks Obama’s Help in Negotiations Over Trade Bill,” BLOOMBERG, 18 March 2015; “Canada faces tough choices in Pacific trade talks,” AGWEEK, 14 March 2015. 

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