By Clive, an investment technology professional and Japanophile
If I’d called it such, readers would probably think I was given to exaggeration because while the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a complex beast as Lambert has already covered, maybe you’d say that’s embellishing it a little. But it is not I who coined that description for the TPP. It was the Japanese cabinet minister who led Japan’s negotiating team.
It’s certainly as good a way to describe the TPP as any I’ve come across. And although there’s been quite a few other notions floated around what the TPP is supposed to be, they do not sing from the same hymn sheet. All of which got me thinking, what *is* the TPP?
Now that we have the full text, it’s a question which lawmakers in the TPP-participating countries are starting to ask in earnest. USTR Froman has already babbled his way through his response but last week the Japanese Diet got their chance to ask Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and Economy Minister Amari, who was Japan’s chief negotiator for the TPP agreement, the same questions at the Lower House Budget committee (which is the Japanese equivalent of a Congressional hearing).
The Nikkei provided excellent domestic coverage, which received the customary lack-of-interest from all other media outside Japan – what English-language translations there were managed to miss everything of importance. There’s a lot packed into five paragraphs so I’ll refrain from my usual habit of interrupting the flow with my two cents’ worth. The Nikkei article is best read as a whole because there is a pattern to Abe’s thinking, the merits of which we’ll discuss afterwards.
Let’s dive in. From the Nikkei…
TPP as a Security Safeguard; ‘also important for regional security’ says Prime Minister Abe
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking to the [Japanese Diet’s] House of Representatives Budget Committee on the morning of November 10th, said of the TPP “The target of each [TPP-participating] country’s economic reform will become improvements in the rule of law. The TPP is also of vital importance in widening the circle of our [Japan’s] national security.” Speaking of measures to target domestic agriculture, Abe added “The government really hears your concerns and the administration will implement whatever countermeasures are needed. Agriculture will become a growth industry”, demonstrating their ambition to expand agricultural exports.
Abe stressed that in relation to the TPP treaty agreement “we were able to secure promises of protections during our negotiations.”
Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy Akira Amari pointed out in relation to repeated references to any TPP renegotiation by the U.S. Congress “The TPP is a multi-dimensional simultaneous equation. If just one thing is unpicked, there is a danger that the whole thing could crumble.” He stated that “Japan will not accept any re-negotiations.”
Prime Minister Abe then emphasised that as a result of the trilateral [China, Japan and South Korea] summit meeting which opened on November 1st “the cooperation among the three countries had been completely restored”. Rebutting a remark made by a committee member that historical disputes had made relationships worse with China and South Korea the Prime Minister countered “I do not think so at all.”
As for the South China Sea situation, such as China’s artificial island construction, Abe said this is a problem and “At international conferences and in bilateral talks, such as the East Asia Summit to be held [this] week, we will strongly highlight the importance of the rule of law.”
Clive again. See, I’m really not making that up; Amari did indeed describe the TPP in that way. And just like the TPP itself, I think Amari’s answer is also multi-dimensional but I’ll come back to that point later (but to give a hint, why did Amari, who is after all the minister responsible for the economy and the former trade minister never mention trade and the TPP in the same sentence?)
I’ll recap briefly first on agriculture and remind readers how much of a give-away deal the Japanese got from the U.S. as shown more fully here. F or whatever limited impact there is to Japan’s agricultural regions, Abe has basically said he’s more than happy to roll out the pork barrel. That is all just your standard Japanese politics at work so I won’t dwell on it any further here.
What is worth a comment is Amari’s reference to how fiendishly complex the TPP agreement has ended up as a result of all of that horse-trading. No wonder Japan – and likely other TPP countries too – insisted there could be no deal without the U.S. Congress passing the TPA “fast track”. If so much as one clause gets tweaked, the affected country will want concessions to compensate, these will come at the expense of another country who will want another set of concessions which will impact the terms for yet another participant. Japan has said under no circumstances can anyone pull on any threads.
And Amari was uncharacteristically blunt for a Japanese person when he said “Japan will not accept any re-negotiations.” He has signalled in an unmistakable way that if the currently-drafted agreement is not ratified precisely as written, Japan will walk away (probably to never come back).
This is a gift to those of us who want to oppose the TPP. Given the inevitable complexity, there are multiple attack surfaces which individual members of the Senate and the House of Representatives can have pressure applied to. The TPA is a double-edged sword because, while it enabled the USTR to negotiate on the basis that the agreed text would not be changed, it also means that anything obviously dumb (for the U.S. to accept) cannot be amended. If the up-or-down vote goes against the TPP, the TPP will be dead for the foreseeable future.
This is as high as the stakes get – please do not let up on your elected representative.
Okay, lecture over. Moving on, where did all these “regional security” notions come from? And not one, but two references to “the rule of law”. One for how – because of the apparently miraculous properties of the TPP – signatory countries (many of whom are, trying to be diplomatic here, not exactly pillars of the community) will suddenly renounce their corrupt crony-riddled ways, human rights abuses will vanish and rent-a-judge legal systems will rediscover their copy of Magna Carta which had got lost behind the back of the chair. Another “rule of law” mention was for where the gaggle of territorial disputes in the region will magically be resolved, maybe because under the TPP there could be a common standard for coconut quality inspections.
It sounds implausible because it is implausible. But I can understand the logic behind Abe’s thinking even if I disagree with how likely it is to achieve its aims. What I believe underpins both Obama and Abe’s strategising is that the Asia Pacific region today is a lot like Europe was after WWII. There are a group of disparate countries with profoundly different cultures, languages and states of development. There is also a long history of conflict. And, for bonus points, there is a large regional power (China in this case rather than Russia) who is the subject of great suspicion and mistrust from the U.S. because, well, it is not the U.S.
The thinking in Washington, which Prime Minister Abe seems to have also bought into, is that what solidified Europe was the succession of treaties (the Treaty of Rome and the Maastricht Treaty being the most notable) which lead to the EU. The EU acted as a bulwark to the USSR and, eventually EU expansion served to push the Russian sphere of influence back eastward. Overt security treaties like NATO went hand-in-glove with the economic treaties; EU membership begat NATO membership and NATO membership begat EU membership.
At the risk of incurring reader ire, I will stick my neck out and say that there is some sense in this. But the downside risks are equally compelling, if not more so. First and foremost is that any new regional power block will unnerve China. If you’ll return your attention to the Nikkei piece above, note the bizarre and completely counterfactual nonsense Abe proffers about how tensions with China have reduced and suddenly it’s all smiles between them.
What utter rubbish. The exact same factors are in play now as which caused violent anti-Japanese street protests (orchestrated by the Chinese government) in 2012. If anything, the territorial disputes dynamics have got worse. So Abe’s rush to reassure China that we can all be one, big happy TPP-land and not be any bother to our neighbor is an attempt to soften China’s concerns.
But what is the point of having a power block if you don’t exercise the power?
This is the second – and subtler, but more dangerous risk – overreach. The TPP block will inevitably end up on the horns of a dilemma. If it merely limits itself to definitions of what are the applicable standards for the dimensions of a coconut, it will be mostly harmless in terms of not upsetting the geopolitical established order. But given the political capital which has been expended in Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere on the TPP, that surely cannot be the aim. It would be wrong to say there is a fine line between “containing” China and “actively curtailing China’s boundaries”. There is no such line at all. Containment can become curtailing; it just depends on who and what is being pushed.
Naked Capitalism has been criticized in some quarters for viewing recent events in Ukraine not through the conventional “oh, that’s just so typical, isn’t Russia terrible” lens but instead “what on Earth was the EU even thinking getting involved with that abysmal Tymoshenko regime?” and it has been right to do so. One nuance which has got lost in the coverage of the conflict is that it coincided with the embryonic “Single EU Foreign Policy” .
That policy is unapologetically expansionist. Under the hopelessly-out-of-her-depth leadership of Baroness Ashton who merely parroted the Franco-German party line, the EU pursued a spectacularly ill-advised engagement with former USSR countries who had been cut loose and left to manage as best they could following the abortive neoliberal takeover of Russia. By far the biggest blunder was in Ukraine, where the EU was seduced by a stunningly corrupt and eventually wantonly anti-Russian government merely on the promise of being able to acquire another member state and greater influence. “Containing”
Russia was definitely an unwritten aim behind this EU foreign policy.
What no-one seems to have told the EU leadership – and what neither Abe, Obama or any of the other TPP cheerleaders in Congress can understand either – is that greedy and stupid governments are greedy and stupid governments. Greedy and stupid governments are usually unstable ones which also have a nasty habit of getting into trouble by picking fights with other, bigger countries. No amount of treaties is going to turn those bad governments into good ones. Worse, if you’re bound up in treaties, the actions of one country inevitably end up pulling everyone into the morass.
When Abe told the Diet “The TPP is also of vital importance in widening the circle of our [Japan’s] national security” he wasn’t kidding. That is exactly what he thinks it is. Note, again from the Nikkei feature, the total lack of any mention of trade. How odd, you might think, given what the USTR and most of the rest of the media keep using as a shorthand to refer to the TPP as – a “trade deal”. Hopefully after reading this article you’ll agree with my inescapable conclusion that the reason why neither Abe nor his minister Amari mentions trade – they went on about practically everything other than trade – is because the TPP isn’t anything to do with trade at all. It is a proto-security pact in disguise.
But what would preoccupy me if I were Japanese – and doubly so if I was an American because guess who will be supposed to be providing the military backstop to all of this – is: exactly who are we inviting into our “circle of national security”? And what sorts of problems do they have and whom do they have them with? And do we really want their problems to become our problems too? Some of those multi-dimensional simultaneous equations can prove to be very hard to solve.