Redefining International Interdependency: The Trans-Pacific Partnership

"Leaders of TPP Member States" Source

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the most revolutionary, comprehensive international agreement that any country has ever signed. Since the end of the Second World War, the U.S. has pursued a general policy of trade liberalization, and President Reagan began to more aggressively do so in the 1980s. This kicked off a new era of globalization largely defined by increasingly interconnected nations, cultures, and markets that continues to this day, and has come to define the world community. Unfortunately, this manner of embracing globalization through trade does not account for many of the most important societal developments and issues today. Instead, it favors an almost purely “economy-first” approach. In an age of rapid globalization-driven policy reforms, the TPP provides promising insights into potential future changes and new directions the expanding process of international interdependency could take.

The TPP is a proposed agreement between twelve Pacific Rim nations that account for nearly forty percent of global GDP, with a value of intra-group trade at $2.08 trillion in 2014. The 5,500 page agreement contains thirty chapters on topics ranging from E-commerce to Investment to Intellectual Property. Although the reduction in barriers to trade is highly impactful and affects roughly 18,000 tariffs, the TPP goes beyond just trade liberalization. The TPP represents a historic move towards a more modernized and globalized society, and indicates a shift away from solely economic-based policy towards a more responsible global framework.

The TPP attempts to address modern challenges at the forefront of recent international debates. A prominent example of how the TPP is the most advanced, modern international agreement is the twentieth chapter, “Environment.” Many of the United States’ FTAs have included environmental provisions; however, these provisions have been rather toothless. The US-Australia FTA, for example, essentially contains an agreement to comply with the existing environmental transparency laws and excludes those laws from the agreement’s dispute settlement provisions. Japan, one of the most environmentally responsible countries in the world, has signed 24 FTAs (sometimes called Economic Partnership Agreements) and not a single one contains an environmental chapter or even a side agreement on environmentally responsible policy.  Requirements within the TPP Environment chapter, like the ban on subsidizing fishing of overfished stocks, are subject to the agreement’s dispute settlement mechanisms. This means states will punish others for non-compliance. This new, more mandatory approach is indicative of a new set of policy initiatives aimed at pursuing a more conscientious form of globalization.

There are countless other sections in the Trans Pacific Partnership that represent unprecedented advances in achieving transnational regulatory harmonization. Nevertheless, there are plenty of counter-arguments cited as rationale for not signing the TPP. Liberal Democrats worry the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions will undermine the environment chapter, though even if they did that’s hardly an effective argument for tossing the agreement altogether. It’s better to have environmental protections that very occasionally are difficult to enforce than to have absolutely none at all. Moreover, some members of the U.S. Congress from both parties tend to argue (rather loudly and simplistically) that TPP will destroy jobs, even though anyone with even a basic understanding of economics knows that the effects of free trade on employment are far more complex and nuanced. Yes, liberalization of trade destroys jobs in certain industries. This is through a process known as “job churn,” by which liberalizing trade disrupts employment to the detriment of some industries and the benefit others. Critically, though, the number of jobs lost is outweighed by the number of jobs created by liberalizing trade. Perhaps that’s why most experts say that although some jobs, mainly manufacturing ones, will be lost due to the TPP, a higher amount of  jobs will be created, and in higher-paying industries. These are just some of the many hotly contested issues that abound discussions on the TPP.

One can find countless responses to the vast majority of arguments in favor of ratifying the TPP. However, there is one main argument in favor of TPP that its opponents have yet to devise a viable counter-argument to: Failing to sign the TPP cedes the strategic and economic high ground to China, and potentially destroys any opportunity for spreading progressive regulation to some of the key economic powers in the world.

A common mistake made when analyzing the TPP is assuming a failure to ratify is tantamount to preservation of the status quo. It is very much not. As the US Congress quibbles over whether or not to ratify TPP, China is vehemently pushing an economic agenda of its own in East and Southeast Asia. For years, China has been racing to complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RCEP includes all the TPP nations outside the Americas, in addition to India, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Taken in terms of population, RCEP nations account for nearly half of the world’s population. Crucially, RCEP includes virtually none of the countless progressive, modern regulatory advancements provided for in the TPP, like environmental protections, and would allow China to dictate the terms of economic activity for 50% of the world, leaving the United States to play by someone else’s far less comprehensive rules in Asia and elsewhere. In short, RCEP represents the sort of economy-first approach to international cooperation that has, for decades, failed to address some of the most pressing issues facing the global population.

Failing to ratify TPP and allowing RCEP to become to law of land in the world’s fastest-growing region would be nothing short of a catastrophe. Liberal Democrats would never see the improvements in human rights, labor, and environmental standards that they so-love to complain the TPP lacks. Conservative Republicans would have actively participated in the act of ceding greater economic authority to China, which they and their presidential candidate erroneously attribute much of America’s problems to; and the world would remain on its current course of globalizing trade that has failed to solve so many paramount issues.

This article says little of the highly complex economic implications of the agreement that both proponents and opponents often oversimplify to advance their positions. The TPP’s ratification, unfortunately, is far from guaranteed and if ratified, it will be some time before the public can get beyond mere projections and truly begin observing tangible impacts. This article is simply a recognition that in the era of rapid and seemingly uncontrollable globalization and ever-changing centers of economic growth, the TPP provides the global citizenry with a glimpse into one potential future of international cooperation. The TPP transcends the economic metrics and market-based approaches that have dominated international cooperation for decades, and endeavors to fundamentally improve the manner in which governments around the world embrace the phenomenon of globalization.

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