[Ip-health] Caution: Free trade ahead
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Fri Nov 16 16:30:54 PST 2012
Caution: Free trade ahead
- Newspaper section:
US President Barack Obama arrives for his first visit Thailand on
Sunday. The US president will be welcomed both officially and popularly, as
head of state of an historical ally, and as an admired world leader. But Mr
Obama's chief business in Thailand is business, not politicking. He will
hand a formal invitation to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to join
negotiations for his pet Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This proposed
trade deal is fraught with dangers for Thailand.
When Mr Obama came to office nearly four years ago, he stated that a major
vision was to re-establish his country as a Pacific power. His Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, and successive defence secretaries have carried out
that policy, even as Mr Obama struggled to end the Iraq and Afghanistan
wars, and to update US ties with Europe. The military "pivot" of armed
forces from Europe to Asia is under way, as is a strong push of the key
economic policy of the TPP.
The TPP actually got its start under ex-president George W Bush, with four
countries buying into the Washington definition of free trade: Singapore,
Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam _ with Hanoi desperate to boost US relations.
Mr Obama took the TPP as his own, and has boosted both the public profile
and membership of the group.
At present, Mr Obama has convinced eight Pacific nations _ plus the US of
course _ to join TPP negotiations, out of the 21 members of the
Asia-Pacific region. Australia and New Zealand are in, as are Peru and
Chile. Important countries still mulling the idea include Japan, China,
Russia. US neighbours Mexico and Canada still have reservations. Which
brings us to Mr Obama and Sunday.
Washington pushes the TPP as a free-trade group. That raises visions of
duty-free cars, cross-border technology and lower food prices. In fact, the
aim of US negotiators in the TPP talks is quite different. While the
bargaining is behind closed doors, it is known that the TPP centres almost
entirely on intellectual property. It is part of what Washington claims
will "provide a level playing field in trade" _ but which others see as a
huge tilt of that field towards the US.
Thai activists already have warned the government about one severely
dangerous aim of TPP. The Partnership calls for drastic new rules on
patents, specifically on medicines. Behind the obfuscation, TPP would
restrict _ effectively end _ the right of Thailand to produce life-saving
medicines at an affordable price. Since 2007, the United States has
punished Thailand for doing exactly that legal thing, by sticking the
country on its Special 301 Watch List as a patent pirate. In fact, Thailand
has strictly stuck to international law on the issue, law that the TPP
wants to change.
Other parts of the TPP hold equally controversial hidden traps. It proposes
to strengthen US control of the internet, for example. The section on
agricultural contains no language about trade, but deals almost exclusively
with a focus on patents and the secrecy of testing of agricultural products.
The government should thank Mr Obama and accept his invitation to
participate in TPP talks. But it must proceed carefully, with a promise to
submit any subsequent agreement to parliament for approval. The TPP could
advance trade, but not without significant changes in its unfair sections.
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