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Q&A: What Are Prospects for Pacific Rim Trade Talks?

  • Victor Beattie

Trade ministers from the 12 nations of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) gather for a four-day meeting in Singapore starting Saturday to hammer out an agreement on trade negotiations.

In addition to the host country, negotiators from Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the United States and Vietnam will tackle such issues as tariff elimination and intellectual property rights.

Victor Beattie spoke with two analysts familiar with the issues within the TPP - Charles Morrison is president of the Hawaii-based East-West Institute and economist Song Seng-wun is with Singapore-based CIMB Research:

BEATTIE: U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman indicated this week that the issues of environmental standards and loss of jobs are overblown – something that maybe happened 20 years ago, but not in 2014.

MORRISON: He may well be right, but many people believe otherwise. In the environmental area, for example, there are basically two points of view. One view is that you can use the free trade agreements to promote environmental protections, and that is the administration’s argument there. But the other view is that you have to hold out for even tougher environmental protections, and so it depends in part whether you see the glass half-empty or half-full.

BEATTIE: What about in Asia, what are the concerns there?

SONG: Cost is only one issue. It’s about tariffs the level of services, the commitment to changes in how businesses are run, you know – all these things. I think these issues are quite close and dear to the U.S. negotiation team, but I think it's probably a bit more ambitious than what some of the members around the table are comfortable with.

BEATTIE: Are the ambitions of the Americans going to impact these negotiations? Will they torpedo these talks?

MORRISON: Well I wouldn't say torpedo, but it makes Mr. Froman’s challenges all the much greater. Negotiating partners don't want to go to their publics and industries and make concessions unless they're sure they're going to get something from the U.S. side.

BEATTIE: In an interview with a Chinese media group this week, Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said TPP negotiators are "very close" to completing the agreement. Is he right?

SONG: Certainly, the Singapore PM is cautiously optimistic, but I think voices from around the region – especially from the Malaysian side – indicate we are still far from a deal. TPP isn’t, you know, your everyday trade deal. It is at a much higher level, and I suppose encompasses not just trade, but services that are very wide reaching. I suspect some sort of watered down commitment to talk could still be agreed upon.

What about from the North American side?

MORRISON: Well there’s a lot of hope that it will wrapped up this year, but we have experienced with other very large scale free trade agreements like the Proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas that they negotiated for 10 years, but were never able to wrap up. So it's like an opera; they say it's never over until the fat lady sings. We haven't seen that yet.