Whether the content of what’s been provisionally agreed is as ambitious and progressive as TPP’s scope is anyone’s guess.

Should we be dismayed or relieved at the disarray the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are in? Sorry, but on the information to hand it is impossible to say.

It is ironic that the conclusion of an agreement supposed to reflect the rapidly changing nature of international commerce in the 21st century is hung up over such last-millennium issues as agricultural protectionism and preferential trade provisions in the auto industry's supply chains.

Because TPP is about a lot more than market access for goods.

It is ambitious and forward-looking in its scope, reflecting the increasing importance of weightless exports and how much cross-border commerce occurs at the speed of light, not of a container ship.


But whether the content of what has been provisionally agreed is as ambitious and progressive as TPP's scope is anyone's guess at this stage.

In the vexed area of intellectual property rights would TPP deliver the protections needed to foster research and innovation, or would it just pander to rent-seeking by powerful incumbents?

The concerns about data exclusivity for new "biologic" pharmaceuticals, which would delay the development of generics and keep up the cost of what could be life-saving treatments have been well traversed.

But what does the IP chapter say about patenting software? Or copyright extension?

TPP has provisions on international trade in services including those supplied electronically. But in the case of financial services, for example, has it struck the right balance between preserving the right of regulators to guard financial stability?

Who can say?

Should the provisions on investor-state dispute resolution be seen as an affront to sovereignty or as protections against governmental expropriation of, or arbitrary discrimination against, companies entrusted with people's retirement savings? Then there are provisions about government procurement and about the permissible levels and forms of support for state-owned enterprises.

Anything to fear there?

Are concerns about a lowest common denominator outcome on environmental and labour standards justified?

And what about disciplines on competition law?

Plenty of questions.

Plenty of scope for suspicion and dark foreboding.

In all of these areas the devil is in the still-secret detail, along with a host of lesser imps and demons.

And all of it will remain secret until it is too late to do anything but confront a binary decision about a package deal that spells out the terms of being part of a preferential trading bloc which includes two of the three largest national economies and a collective 40 per cent of the world economy.

The time frame for a yes-or-no decision by the United States Congress means that TPP negotiators have, at most, a few weeks to achieve what they could not in Maui in Hawaii before the exigencies of election-year politics in the United States sidelines the issue.