[Ip-health] IP-Watch: Secret Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Takes Centre Stage In Asia

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Wed Jun 24 06:16:23 PDT 2015


Secret Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Takes Centre
Stage In Asia


The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), part of US President Barack Obama’s
promised pivot to Asia, has stirred up a hornet’s nest on the ethics of
trying to hammer out a trade deal in secrecy. But it is not the only one. A
proposed trade agreement in Asia, the Regional Comprehensive Economic
Partnership (RCEP), is facing the same hiccups and flak.

The eighth round of negotiations for the RCEP concluded this month at the
Japanese city of Kyoto amid a shroud of secrecy and intense speculation.
There is no official text available for the public to assess what
specifically was being negotiated.

But drafts leaked by the US-based nongovernmental organisation Knowledge
Ecology International (KEI) of recent proposals from Japan and South Korea
on the chapter on intellectual property point to RCEP being similar to the
TPP in significant aspects. This has raised the hackles of activists
campaigning for access to affordable medicines. KEI also uploaded leaked
drafts of the negotiating positions of India and the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on its site this month.

In the absence of confirmation or denial from the negotiators, speculation
about negotiating positions continues. Civil society protestors and health
advocates say the issues at stake are critical and an informed debate is
vital before the next round, scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpur in July.

What is the RCEP?

Started in May 2013, the RCEP is being negotiated between the 10 ASEAN
countries and their six free trade agreement partners: Australia, China,
India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

The negotiations are meant to “boost economic growth and equitable economic
development, advance economic cooperation and broaden and deepen
integration in the region through the RCEP,” according to the ASEAN website.

Several countries involved in negotiations on RCEP, including Japan, are
also participating in the TPP negotiation being led by the United States.

Of the two, the TPP has been a lot more in the public eye and kicked up
much more storm to date, but both proposed trade deals have one key
sticking point in common. Intellectual property rights and access to
life-saving medicines is as prickly in the RCEP negotiations as it is in
the TPP talks. Both have been slammed for lack of transparency.

“Everyone is keeping a stoic silence around the Regional Comprehensive
Economic Partnership,” Prof. Biswajit Dhar, an Indian academic teaching at
the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in Delhi’s prestigious
Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Intellectual Property Watch. Japan, the
host country for the 8th round of RCEP negotiations, put out thebarest
minimum information

Recently, India has been one of the sites of vocal protests by patient
groups and health activists who say that some RCEP countries – notably
Japan and Korea – are trying to aggressively push for stronger intellectual
property provisions in the trade agreement. If accepted, these could extend
monopoly protection beyond what is required by existing international

Activists say this would impact access to affordable medicines in
developing countries. Farmer’s groups, trade unions, civil society and
patient groups have urged the Indian government to make the negotiating
texts public and hold consultations with all the relevant stakeholders, in
light of the potential negative impact this agreement could have on access
to medicines, livelihood of farmers, quality public services and overall
social and economic development of the country.

Patient groups including Delhi Network of Positive People (DNP+) along with
International Treatment Preparedness Coalition-South Asia have rallied
outside the Embassy of Japan in New Delhi to flag the alleged dangers the
trade deal poses to access to medicines.

In India, the concerns are not just about the negotiating position, but
also about the negotiators. Academic Dhar, who follows trade deals, said he
is worried that the current crop of Indian bureaucrats who are negotiating
the RCEP and other trade agreements are relatively new to their job and
that “some of the old battle-scarred negotiators with extensive experience
of trade deals have been transferred to other departments.”

Dhar feels that the Indian government should have ensured that at least
some experienced persons with deep knowledge of India’s position on IPR are
there at the negotiating table.

Leena Menghaney, lawyer and India manager of the international medical
charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Access Campaign, told Intellectual
Property Watch that though media reports about the 8th round of
negotiations on RCEP at Kyoto did not play up intellectual property rights,
“Those who follow the negotiations closely have told us that IP featured
during the latest talks at Kyoto.”

“India maintained its red lines in the negotiations that it would not
commit to provisions beyond [the World Trade Organization Agreement on]
Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS),” she said.
“I hope India maintains this position even with the recent change in
negotiators from the Indian department of Industrial Policy & Promotion

Reports in the Indian media say that India, the “pharmacy of the developing
world” and maker of low-cost generics, would resist a push by Japan and
South Korea for stringent patent legislation. But given the concerted
pressure, the question remains: for how long?

It is not only Indian IPR analysts and health advocates who are complaining
of excessive secrecy surrounding the RCEP.

“There is very little information publicly available about the RCEP
negotiations,” Belinda Townsend, a professor at the School of Humanities
and Social Sciences Deakin University, told Intellectual Property Watch in
an e-mail interview. “In fact very few people were even aware that they
were taking place. But IPRs seem to be a very contentious issue in the
negotiations, with at least four competing proposals having been put
forward, so it seems likely that they would have been discussed.”

Townsend, a member of the People’s Health Movement and the Public Health
Association of Australia, along with Deborah Gleeson, lecturer in public
health at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Ruth Lopert, adjunct
professor, Department of Health Policy & Management at George Washington
University, flagged the veil of secrecy around RCEP in an article
titled,RCEP: the trade agreement you’ve never heard of but should be
concerned about on 8 June just as the talks were about to start in Kyoto.

Why is IPR becoming such a thorny issue in regional trade agreements like
the RCEP and what can be done to address the concerns of health advocates?

“IPR is an issue in these regional trade agreements because we are seeing
proposals to extend IP monopolies beyond international agreements and the
domestic laws of many of the negotiating countries,” Townsend said. “If the
negotiating countries agree to these stringent measures then access to
generic medicines will likely be delayed – which could have severe
consequences for affordable access to much needed medicines around the
world. Governments should oppose any IP measures in RCEP that go beyond the
TRIPS agreement.”

“These negotiations are conducted in secret – so there is little
information available to the public about the Australian government’s
position on IPR in RCEP,” she said. “Leaked text for an IP chapter in the
Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations in November 2013 showed
that Australia was opposing many of the stringent IP measures proposed by
the US.”

“However, it wasn’t clear if Australia was supporting low and middle income
countries in the negotiations to strike a better balance between public and
private interests,” Townsend added. “A lot has happened since then and we
don’t know how these issues will play out in the negotiations. Australia
was a key proponent of ACTA which did contain stringent IP measures – so it
is not clear cut.” ACTA refers to the contentious Anti-Counterfeiting Trade
Agreement that was defeated due to popular criticism, including about IPR.

The Australian public knows very little about what is being negotiated in
RCEP, which is why the Public Health Association of Australia and others
are calling for the release of treaty text before it is endorsed by
Cabinet, Townsend said.

Meanwhile, from the industry standpoint, at a public function in March this
year, Jyotsna Suri, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of
Commerce and Industry (FICCI), spoke appreciatively [pdf] about the current
leadership in India that is focused on enhancing engagement with ASEAN.
This clearly reflects in its declaration that India’s “Look East Policy”
has now changed to “Act East Policy,” he said. Suri said the wide-ranging
free trade agreement in 2009, Trade in Services and Investments Agreement
with ASEAN, coupled with the ASEAN Economic Community and the proposed
RCEP, have the potential to change the regional architecture and bring
India a step closer to realising the dream of the “Asian Century”.

The 9th round of RCEP negotiations are scheduled to take place in Kuala
Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, next month.

But clearly Asian integration is not going to be an easy job. Intellectual
property rights is an important but by no means the only thorny issue.
Significant disagreement persists on other areas as well, such as tariff
cuts, leading to slow progress and fuelling doubts. Many question the
feasibility of the end of 2015 deadline for stitching up this ambitious
mega trade deal. Optimists are confident that the glitches will be worked
out eventually, but as Bachrul Chairi, director general for Indonesia
international trade cooperation put it:

“Uniting the views on the modality of integration is very difficult because
of the differences in the interests and the levels of economic growth among
the 16 members of RCEP.”

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