Free trade agreements (FTAs) are easier said than done. U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged as much when announcing an outline agreement to expand the TransPacific Partnership from four to nine as a basis for a regional FTA. There is much detail to be negotiated. It will take years, not months. Many devils must be confronted.
For one, Obama’s domestic opponents are not going to hand him a political and economic victory with a general election barely a year away. Even in the highly unlikely event a final TTP agreement could be reached quickly, a Republican-dominated House of Representatives could block a vote for Congressional approval before the election. Nor are Republicans likely to allow an agreement containing what Obama called ‘high standards’, code for among others environmental and labor protections and local sustainability rights that are an anathema to many of Obama’s opponents.
All those are the quick and dirty domestic political battles. Japan’s decision to join promises a hundred years war. Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has risked splitting his party in doing so. He will now need to turn the country’s three most powerful and insular domestic political constituencies, farmers, doctors and the construction industry. Doing so would mean a deep structural change to Japan’s political system. That may be long overdue, but it will not be quick in coming. That alone should not imbue supporters of the expanded TTP FTA with great confidence. Nor should the rapid turnover of recent Japanese prime ministers. Noda is the sixth in five years.
It is already two years since the U.S. applied to join the four-member TTP and started to orchestrate its expansion to nine, including bringing in its two most important treaty partners in the region, South Korea and Japan, as well as regional allies such as Thailand. There have already been nine rounds of TTP expansion negotiations. These are painstaking processes.
The Obama administration’s move was part a a bigger game of FTA chess that it is playing with China for influence in the region. Washington is playing the APEC side of the board while Beijing is playing the ASEAN side. (The side story for those choices is that the Asia-Pacific Economic Community is a group of economies, so can include Taiwan, whereas the Association of South-East Asian Nations comprises countries, so does not. Taipei has expressed interest in joining the TTP FTA, and while Washington has been scrupulously silent on the point, the absence of any outright rejection is being taken in Beijing as unacceptable tacit support.)
Beijing, meanwhile, has been doing what it can to slow up the TTP expansion, and pushing a series of bilateral trade agreement with ASEAN nations and the concepts of regional trade pacts between ASEAN plus three (itself, South Korea and Japan) and ASEAN plus six (adding Australia, New Zealand and India). The U.S. is notable by its absence. Hence Washington’s attempts to involve all the same countries, with the one obvious exception, to much the same purpose but under the aegis of APEC.
This is not necessarily disliked by most Asian countries as it allows them to keep both regional superpowers from being too dominant as they jockey for supremacy. The most extreme example of this is that both China and the U.S. are trying to create trilateral free trade agreements with South Korea and Japan. Two tracks. Double the trouble. And any end game still a long way off.