Fran O'Sullivan: Never mind the warships - passing the TPP is what matters now

TPP should have been high up the list for questions at the joint press conference held by Biden and the Prime Minister. Photo / Greg Bowker
TPP should have been high up the list for questions at the joint press conference held by Biden and the Prime Minister. Photo / Greg Bowker

China was the obvious elephant in the room when Joe Biden visited New Zealand as the Obama Administration moved to assert US supremacy in the region.

"The United States is a Pacific nation. We are not going anywhere. We are here to stay," was the Vice-President's message for Beijing - not simply the two Oceania nations on his dance card: NZ and Australia.

The South China Sea issue is a defining point. But when it comes to the economic platform, which the US has designed largely to assert its regional leadership against China's claims, the omens were not inspiring.

It's bizarre - and frankly disappointing - that the Trans-Pacific Partnership rated hardly a mention.

The Obama Administration sponsored TPP as a trade agreement for the 21st century.

Biden made an oblique reference, saying that "together, we have led the way in creating high-standard trading agreements that are necessary to uphold the liberal economic order of this new century; agreements that protect workers' rights, preserve the environment, and significantly safeguard intellectual property". But this means nothing without ratification.

Obama's only option is to try to get TPP over the congressional line during the lame duck session following the presidential election, irrespective of the election campaign dynamics.

Biden's comments in both Australia and NZ suggest the odds of getting it passed are not high. But it is important that the Administration gives TPP a solid go.

TPP should have been high up the list for questions at the joint press conference held by Biden and the Prime Minister. The Vice-President's advance team ruled that out.

A well-placed NZ source suggested the US wanted to "derisk" any possibility that he might say something that would cause either a stir here or - perhaps more importantly - a ruckus back home, where the Republicans were getting poised to anoint the blatantly xenophobic Donald Trump as their presidential candidate.

There shouldn't have been any concern. Biden did relent and allowed a question on TPP.

His response: "I think in the lame duck session we have a real chance for that happening. The lame duck means after this general election takes place in November and before the Congress adjourns. I'm hopeful."

In Australia, which has a much stronger and enduring relationship with the US, Biden said TPP would struggle to get over the line. "Xenophobic" language during the presidential campaign had had an effect.

"It's going to be hard to pass in both our countries, maybe not as hard for you [Australia], we're going to try to do a lame duck session in the US congress," he told an Australian business gathering.

Biden noted "the nature of the debate in the campaign that is playing on fear and not on hope".

"Who knows what it is going to take."

The readout from the NZ Cabinet is more layered. "Everyone can see there are potential risks," was Key's response.

"He [Biden] believes it can be ratified during that period between November and January."

Trade Minister Todd McClay suggests that while Trump and the Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton oppose TPP in its current form, the US Trade Representative will produce a strategy to move forward. Being bullish in public is not part of that.

The visit's dominant issue was the largely symbolic return of US warship visits after the lengthy Anzus impasse.

This is yesteryear's issue. The struggle for regional supremacy between the two Asia-Pacific heavyweights - the US and China - is much more important.

But even more so is delivering on a deal which has been signed but not ratified.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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