The TPP and the “Pivot to Asia” by the US may not be going so well

TPP Protest - Japan

TPP Protest – Japan

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a “Free Trade” Agreement initiated by the United States about 3 years ago, and has been strongly promoted by the Obama administration.  The agreement, however, has little to do with free trade and much to do with protection of American corporate interests in Asia and the Pacific.  The agreement has encountered stiff resistance in several Asian and Pacific countries, but despite that, it seemed to be making steady progress towards completion.   Some in the US and Canada have called the TPP a “done deal”.

TPP ProtestMany have described the TPP as very evil in its concept, protecting US corporate interests above the interests of the people in the signatory countries, including Americans living within the US borders.  Many say the results will be a loss of internet privacy and increased medical costs amongst other extremely uncomfortable results.  If you are not familiar with the TPP, I did write an article in the blog about it near the beginning of the year:  I am unable to provide many details about the TPP, and the same goes for everyone else, because unlike almost all other trade agreements that have been introduced ever, the terms of this agreement are kept in complete secret.  Even members of the US Congress cannot read the terms of this agreement.  No media can examine it, debate it, or discuss any of the agreement details.  And that also applies to every signatory country to the TPP as well.   So much for the “transparency administration.”

The TPP has been the major element of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” concept of American intervention into the affairs of Asian countries.  Some have criticized the American pivot as further over-reach into sovereign domestic affairs of smaller nations that do not have the huge economic and military power that the US has to resist the intrusion. It may appear, however, that pivoting may have gotten stuck as it was turning.

There have been American problems domestically as the US federal government has a partial shutdown and as they are trying to implement the draconian government control over the domestic medical care system.   There is also growing opposition with the TPP in Congress, and many believe it has little chance of being ratified if (or when) it is presented to Congress.  This is a serious blow to the prospects for TPP and their corporate sponsors, and is being carefully watched in participating countries outside of the US where opposition is much stronger.

The US, of course, has a new Secretary of State eager to prove himself.  John Kerry, immediately after taking office became involved in starting a US war against Syria, to be  followed up by conflicts with other Middle Eastern governments.  The Syrian situation was mishandled and was a total flop for the State Department, and the US did not gain the economic advantages they were anticipating in the region out of the conflict.  It was a serious loss of face for US foreign policy, the Obama White House and John Kerry.

Immediately after the Syrian fiasco, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference was held in Bali.  It concluded yesterday.  Obama was scheduled to attend and direct the final efforts in getting the TPP completed at this conference.  The plan was to have full ratification of the TPP by all nations by the end of 2013.  Because of US domestic problems, however, Obama was a “no-show”, and he sent his Secretary of State Kerry to fill in for him.

Chinese President at the APEC Conference in Bali

Chinese President at the APEC Conference in Bali

Recently, China elected a new president, Xi Jinping, and his attendance at the APEC Conference was the dominant theme of the entire event.  China has its own free trade agreement competing with Obama’s TPP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  This agreement does not have the corporate protectionism prevalent as in the TPP and is being received quite well by potential signatories.  In the TPP, China is not invited to participate, and in the RCEP, the United States is not invited.

Mr. Kerry had little input at the Bali Conference of nations, and the TPP was scarcely mentioned.  Regarding a dispute about some small offshore islands in the South China Sea (claimed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines), Kerry did his best to establish the US as an arbitrator in the dispute (see “Kerry in Asia Urges Focus on Law in China Disputes”,  This proved to be another Kerry blunder, however, as he pushed China to adhere to international maritime law that was established by the United Nations.  That law was never ratified by the United States (and the US is not a participant in it), and therefore not in a position to urge others to adhere to these rules.  Mr. Kerry is again proving to be an embarrassment to American foreign policy.

Chinese Premier and Thaiand's Prime Minister

Chinese Premier and Thaiand’s Prime Minister

After the Bali Conference, China’s new president embarked on his formal Asian tour, beginning with a visit to Bangkok, joined by the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang.  The Premier addressed the Thai Parliament, the first foreign dignitary to do so in more than a decade.  Several new trade agreements were signed by China and Thailand’s Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.  China is already Thailand’s largest trading partner, and promises of further trade were made yesterday between the two leaders.  Thailand-China trade are expected to rise to a level of USD $100 Billion by 2015, which compares to Thailand-US trade at an estimated $40 Billion.  The shift in influence from trade has already happened.

The United States has held an advantage in world trade as the “reserve currency”, meaning trade in oil and other commodities are made in US dollars (thus increasing the value of the dollars because they are necessary for international trading).  This advantage, however, is eroding as nations are signing new bilateral agreements to trade in their own currency (and cutting the cost of export/import in the process).  With this visit of China’s Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to Thailand, an announcement was made about the establishment of a Yuan/Baht Currency Clearing House in Thailand to enhance trade between the two partners and any other traders dealing in the Chinese currency.  This is major business news and indicative of the strengthening relationship between China and Thailand.

For certain, Obama’s Pivot to Asia is showing some rough spinning going on in the pivoting.  Somehow, the pivot wheel got a little stuck in Syria, Iran, Africa, Brazil, Bolivia and the US domestic problems.  Meanwhile, most of Asia seems to be pivoting towards China.

Your comments and differing opinions on this are always appreciated.

WikiLeaks Threatens Pacific Trade Deal Deadline: Southeast Asia – Bloomberg BusinessWeek – 20 November 2013

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One thought on “The TPP and the “Pivot to Asia” by the US may not be going so well

  1. Brave New World

    Published: Wednesday October 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
    Updated: Wednesday October 16, 2013 MYT 8:24:23 AM
    Compassion withers as trade steps in

    by azmi sharom




    Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, I thought it might be good to look back a bit at the history of free trade and the laissez faire system.

    In the 19th century, Britain was firmly in the grips of the free trade ideology.

    It had been a source of great wealth in the 18th century and by the Victorian age it was thought that the future of growth and development following this dogma was endless, especially with the advent of the industrial revolution.

    To a large extent, this optimistic vision of the world was proven to be correct. Britain flourished like never before and became a true world power.

    There was of course a dark side to this development. Colonialism which initially started with the philosophical foundations of raising foreign and backward countries to the point that they were “civilised” enough to govern themselves and be part of a global trade system (as paternalistic and condescending as it was) was replaced by an even more damaging philosophy which saw colonialism as little more than an economic endeavour.

    Imperialism, whether grounded in lofty (if misguided) ideals or economic pragmatism, left deep scars borne of subjugation, the loss of dignity and dangerously false scientific premise justifying the necessity to rule over “lesser” races. Scars which are still sore in some parts of the world today.

    Closer to home, industrial Britain in Victorian times saw great misery and exploitation suffered in the name of progress.

    Poverty, disease, child labour and social inequality reached staggering levels.

    However, what I wish to discuss here are not the effects of colonialism or unhindered capitalism. Instead, I wish to point out the dangers of being too enamoured with the idea of free trade to the point that basic human values of compassion are forgotten.

    And there are two examples of 19th century social tragedy of tremendous scale with which to illustrate this.

    I use the word tragedy here in its true literary sense, for both these events could have been avoided if not for stupendously poor decision making.

    In the mid-19th century there was a famine in Ireland. Peasants grew potatoes and little else. It was monoculture on a grand scale. So when a disease struck the potato crop, effectively destroying everything, there was a nationwide famine.

    People suffering from starvation was a given, but the other effects of the failed crop was homelessness due to evictions, disease from malnutrition and abject living conditions, and mass emigration.

    It is estimated that a million people died due to the famine.

    Approximately the same number of people died in India in 1896/1897. This was also due to a famine. This time the cause of the crop failure was not disease but the monsoon rains which failed to come.

    It would be inaccurate to say that nothing was done to help the starving. There were governmental measures taken and charity drives, in both these places.

    However, they were sorely lacking and in some cases poorly planned and implemented. However, one of the things that struck me the most was the fact that in both Ireland and India at the time of the famines, there was a food surplus.

    Unfortunately, the grain was earmarked for export.

    The reason why this surplus was not directed to the starving was ideological. It was thought that the free market would correct the imbalance of food distribution by itself.

    And the all-prevailing philosophy of free trade was of such importance that exports must not in any circumstances be stopped.

    It seems unthinkable that the Victorian leaders of Britain could think in that way let alone make their decisions at the cost of millions of lives based on the belief that trade was more important than people, but that is what happened.

    Could such a thing happen today? Well, perhaps famine of such a scale is unlikely in this country.

    But it is possible that free trade could lead to other social tragedies. It is imperative then that the promise of wealth which the free trade proponents espouse with such convincing rhetoric not blind decision makers to the necessity to think of all possible outcomes from such a philosophy.

    It is necessary for them to not forget their humanity.

    > Dr Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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