US trade rep pitches for TPP amid outcry
Just a few minutes before US Trade Representative Michael Froman made his case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the new American Enterprise Institute building in Washington on Thursday morning, a fact sheet had been distributed to the audience.
It listed many benefits of the free trade agreement between the US and other 11 Pacific Rim nations, and touts that TPP will help boost US exports, GDP growth, eliminate 18,000 tariffs and provide most of its benefits to US workers.
But the 50-minute talk where Froman and Senator Jeff Flake argued for TPP was interrupted three times by angry anti-TPP protesters, one shouting “TPP stands for corporate protectionism and TPP is not fair trade.” They were quickly stopped and escorted out of the room by security.
The Obama administration is going all out to get Congress to ratify TPP during the lame-duck period after the presidential election on Nov 8. Many US experts, such as Michael Green and Matthew Goodman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the TTP passing is a long shot.
US Vice-President Joe Biden admitted on Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that the chances of TPP passing during Obama’s remaining four months are “less than even”. But he still tried to sound optimistic, saying “there is a genuine chance. It’s possible we can get it passed.”
Flake, from Arizona, sighed on Thursday over the fact that the top four US presidential candidates this year all opposed TPP, referring to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz. “So we are in a difficult situation,” he said.
He also saw a slight hope, saying the lame-duck session will be a time that people do what they know they need to do but cannot do at another time.
Strong opposition to TPP comes mainly from Obama’s own Democratic Party, but a growing number of Republicans, who traditionally favor free trade and whom Obama hopes to count on, are not enthusiastic either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the TPP would not get a Senate vote this year; House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he does not see enough votes for it to pass.
Froman admitted that as a country the US has not done as well as it should have and as much as it should have to deal with the effects of dislocation, whether by automation or globalization.
“As people are put out of a job, and communities are affected by change, we haven’t really had as much an approach as we all would like to see. I hope that (the) future administration and future Congress could work together to do more,” he said.
“There is more that needs to be done, whether it’s lifelong learning, investment in infrastructure or skills building.”
But he was reminded by the audience why the US government has not done more to help displaced workers, instead of just talking year after year.
Froman admitted that it will be a huge blow to US credibility if TPP is not passed. “It’s about our credibility going into any trade agreement negotiation going forward,” he said, adding that it is not just an economic issue but a strategic issue.
Froman cited China’s progress in the region with its Belt and Road Initiative, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a freetrade agreement that includes 16 countries, many of which are also a part of TPP.
Obama has repeatedly made his case for TPP from a geopolitical view, saying “China should not make the rules, we should.”
Yukon Huang, a senior associate of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the Obama administration has to increasingly rely on geopolitical factors to sell TPP to the American public because TPP’s economic rationale is not obvious.
“You cannot have a trade agreement in Asia that does not include China,” said Huang, a former World Bank country director for China.