Monday, 1 July 2013

Reassess Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

HAVE you heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? It is a multilateral trade agreement being negotiated between Malaysia, the United States and several other Pacific Rim nations, and if it becomes law, it will have an immense impact on the country's financial, economic, and even legal affairs. In other words, a strong case can be made that the TPPA would undermine Malaysia's sovereignty. Malaysia is set to host the next round of negotiations for the TPPA this month, but there are still significant challenges ahead before the trade deal can become law.

Putrajaya has taken a strong stance against any extension of intellectual property rights involving medicine in the deal, which could otherwise significantly inflate the price of generic medications. International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed told the media that he would defend existing policies and choose not to sign the TPPA if the terms didn't benefit Malaysia.

It would be strange for Malaysia to agree to the TPPA, given its past criticism of neo-liberal capitalism and deregulated trade. Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once likened free trade to a house with all its doors and windows left open, and as a consequence, bears, wolves and other predatory beasts would invite themselves inside.

He also called for a new model of globalisation that could be more equitable, and more in service to social uplift and poverty reduction, rather than to a handful of Western banks and mega-corporations.
Dr Mahathir attempted to ingrain that philosophy in Umno, and it has served Malaysia well. Signing the TPPA would mean restructuring the entire economy and legal system to conform to the stipulations of the deal, resulting in Malaysia being a lot more vulnerable to casino capitalism and currency speculation.

The TPPA would prohibit Malaysia from banning risky financial instruments, speculation and derivatives. Tt would also be banned from enacting capital controls, while banks would enjoy significantly less regulatory oversight. Additionally, it imposes strict intellectual property legislation that would undermine access to the Internet and digital file sharing, as well as stymie the production of generic medications that could violate foreign patents.

Not only does it create incentives for multinational corporations to offshore jobs by encouraging bottom-of-the-barrel low wage conditions in participating countries, but it also makes signatory countries accountable to international trade tribunals, giving foreign corporations the ability to demand compensation for any expected future profits that may have been lost or hindered by existing national laws.

Think of the TPPA as the Asia-Pacific version of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which dismantled the US manufacturing base and led to job losses, wages being driven down and heightened inequality. The TPPA would also allow pharmaceutical giants to increase drug prices and limit consumers' access to cheaper generic drugs. The fact that Putrajaya has taken a strong stance to defend existing policy is a welcoming sign.

It shows that Malaysia is still not willing to abandon its principles despite defying Western trade remedies. The other notable instance of Malaysia doing that was when it rejected the IMF's austerity measures following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and it proved to be a pretty good idea. The United States is going through some trouble lately -- it has had to enact deep cuts in social spending, and yet it continues to channel enormous sums to its military budget, which far surpasses that of any other country.

Washington narrowly pursues its interests in every way possible and the TPPA is its bid to bring the Asean region closer into its orbit in the face of a rising China that is notably assertive over territorial issues in the South China Sea. The Obama administration is at the helm of a country overstretched by its foreign adventurism and military interventions, and it wants to harness the economic growth of Southeast Asia's tiger cub economies to pay its massive debts, and for its own economic recovery.

The emerging reality is that several signatory countries feel the TPPA could threaten their national interests, and the voices are getting louder. It's a relief to see that Putrajaya has made itself heard, and has conveyed its willingness to take an independent position, even if it means being the odd man out. Dissent is also brewing in Japan, from the country's agricultural lobby and rice farmers, who oppose the TPPA's zero-tariff policies and are in support of domestic protectionist policies that have guarded local industries.

There is growing scepticism of the deal in Malaysia's mainstream press and among government and business officials. Hanafee Yusoff of the Malay Chamber of Commerce publicly opposed it and asked how Malaysia could ever sign such a grossly unequal agreement. Dr Mahathir has called for Malaysia to reject the TPPA, while leading figures in Pakatan have also expressed their concern over the deal for similar reasons.

The Obama administration's pivot to the Asia-Pacific region has resulted in some 60 per cent of the US naval arsenal moving to the Asean region, effectively becoming dozens of floating military bases, adding to the already complicated geopolitical landscape. Washington's emphasis on security issues dominates US foreign policy, and its shift to Asia has not garnered much serious criticism from regional media, which is quite bewildering given the complicated and aggressive history of the US military in the region.

Malaysia, as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), should pursue its existing social welfare and economic policies and avoid slipping into any other countries' sphere of influence. It can start by taking a good hard look at the substance of this trade deal and making the right decision in the people's best interests.

This article appeared in the July 1st print edition of the New Straits Times newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a Malaysia-based political analyst and a columnist with Russia Today. He also contributes to PressTV, Global Research, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at