Toby Manhire
Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: TPP secrecy invites suspicion about US

Mitt Romney. Photo / AP
Mitt Romney. Photo / AP

Only a fool would have held out hope that Mitt Romney or Barack Obama might make mention of plucky little New Zealand in their foreign policy debate this week. They were more occupied by Israel (34 mentions), by a mutual enthusiasm for imposing "crippling sanctions" on Iran, by jokes about bayonets, and, well, by domestic policy.

But we did, sort of, get a nod. Challenged by the Republican pretender on the way those Chinese like to "steal our jobs" (Romney actually said "steal our jobs"), Obama intoned: "We believe China can be a partner, but we're also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power, that we are going to have a presence there."

Pacific! That's us, right? Those "rebalancing" noises that the President and Hillary Clinton have been whistling our way are for real. Obama went on: "We are working with countries in the region to make sure, for example, that ships can pass through; that commerce continues. And we're organising trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards."

When Obama says "organising trade relations", he means, of course, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement - better known as the TPP, a name designed to make you run for the hills or the Shopping Channel.

But soporific or not, the TPP bubble is New Zealand-bound, with the next, and 15th, round of negotiations to begin in Auckland in five weeks. Eleven nations will be represented, from the minnow host to the dominant US - whose participation, as the President has explained, is motivated by a desire to exert pressure on China.

The only trouble is that New Zealand's Trade Minister, Tim Groser, has expressly dismissed any suggestion that the deal is about China - to the extent, as the assiduous TPP critic Jane Kelsey observed this week, that such a thing would be a deal-breaker.

Earlier this year, Groser told Radio New Zealand that he had made this clear to the Americans. "The moment we smelt or sensed that this was an anti-China thing, we'd leave the TPP," he said. In case you thought there might be any ambiguity around that, Mr Groser cleared it up. "There is no ambiguity around this," he said. "TPP is not an anti-China strategy whatsoever. And if it changed in its nature, we would actually not be part of it."

For all that, there's no sign that Groser is taking his ball and going home. Maybe he didn't catch the debate. Regardless, the implication that the US is using the TPP as a bayonet to thrust at the Chinese is far from the only thing that should bother us.

The intellectual property chapter as drafted would empower US companies to enforce their patents in partner countries - a threat not just to the innovation sector, but also to Pharmac's ability to provide affordable drugs. Copyright periods would be extended, parallel importing could become largely a thing of the past, and even playing a DVD with a non-New Zealand region code would be made a criminal act.

"Investor-state dispute provisions", meanwhile, could entitle foreign investors to sue the New Zealand Government in an international court of arbitration should it introduce regulations deemed to damage that investment.

But these objections (there are many more) we only know thanks to leaks. Because the really, properly disquieting thing about the TPP is that it's being negotiated in secret.

Advocates of the process say that it is a "work in progress" while "consensus is forged", but the trouble is that both the work and its progress are conducted entirely behind closed doors - and there is a hollowness about any consensus as long as the democracies themselves are blindfolded.

New Zealand negotiators are clearly not rolling over on each and every US demand. The Government has indicated it will contest, for example, the intellectual property chapter. And opposition to the TPP process does not automatically amount to opposition to multilateral trade deals - there is good reason to think New Zealand stands to gain from a fair and transparent trade deal. But the veiled process is insidious, and only invites - demands - suspicion about its contents, and about US motivations.

When they sit down in Auckland on December 3, delegates should start by agreeing to permit a bit of sunlight into the room, to let us know something of what they're talking about. And one other thing. They could all sign a note saying how keen they are for China to join.

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

- NZ Herald

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