Self-awareness often eludes U.S. officials who push American interests on Asia. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Vietnam was a case in point as the secretary of state implored the government to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In his pitch earlier last week, Kerry said the U.S.-led trade deal would bring “transparency” and “accountability” to the communist nation, helping it become a more open society that supports free expression. An odd thought, considering the Big Brother-like secrecy enshrouding the treaty on the U.S. side.
The pro-TPP argument goes as follows: This is the moment Asia’s reformers have been waiting for. It’s a chance for Japan to take on vested interests, Malaysia to kill growth-stifling affirmative-action policies, Vietnam to rein in bloated state-owned enterprises and Singapore to spur innovation. Think of TPP as an economic Trojan horse — a means of shaking up stagnant political systems by stealth.
Yet the dearth of details about the treaty is exactly why Asia should opt out of the most ambitious free-trade deal in U.S. history.
U.S. lawmakers and civil-liberties groups have complained for some time about the opacity surrounding the treaty’s terms. Mild grousing turned into outrage last month after WikiLeaks did what Barack Obama’s White House refuses to: share portions of the document with the public. The draft of the intellectual-property rights chapter by Julian Assange’s outfit validated the worst fears — that TPP is a corporatist power grab. Rather than heed the outcry, the U.S. doubled down on secrecy, refusing to disclose more details.
Hasn’t the U.S. wondered why so many of East Asia’s most promising democracies have so far avoided the treaty? The popular excuse for why Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand aren’t yet among the 12 TPP economies is that they aren’t ready or are trapped by their own timidity. A better explanation is that their leaders realize that truly transparent and accountable governments, to borrow Kerry’s own words, shouldn’t be leading their people into the unknown.
Take Japan, which recently spirited a government secrets bill into law without public debate, even though most Japanese oppose it. The ostensible reason for the move by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was to ensure confidential sharing of intelligence with the U.S. in the post-Edward Snowden world. But human-rights groups are up in arms over its far-reaching and ambiguous language and the potential jail terms for journalists and whistle-blowers. In form and timing, it had TPP written all over it.
“The vagueness of the secrets act reflects a basic theme of Japanese governance, which is ‘I work for the government, therefore I know more than you, therefore you should do what I say,’ ” says Colin Jones, a legal scholar at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, Japan. That, in a nutshell, explains the Obama administration’s TPP argument: Oh, don’t worry, we know what we’re doing and it will be fine. The trouble is that this poses a demand for trust, with no opportunity to verify.
You know you have a transparency problem when citizens of a democracy need to rely on WikiLeaks for details on changes to laws on Internet use, labor, environmental and food-safety standards, and the cost and availability of drugs. It’s worth considering something Google Inc. Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt told CNBC in December 2009: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” So why is the Obama administration behaving as if it runs a closed communist party state? The answer can only be, To circumvent the legislative process.
“If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, TPP has you in its crosshairs,” Assange said last month. If instituted, TPP “would trample over individual rights and free expression as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons.”
Asian governments should reject TPP unless they can tell their people exactly what is in it, and why and how it will affect their lives. Thanks to Assange, we now know that the U.S. wants signatories to allow patent changes that could raise the cost of food and health care in developing nations, including increasing the price of treating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Is that progress?
Last month, 151 House Democrats, members of Obama’s own party, sent a letter to the White House stating their opposition to granting him fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements, citing a lack of congressional consultation. Why have officials from Johnson & Johnson, Cisco Systems Inc. and General Electric Co. seen details that skeptical legislators such as Elizabeth Warren and Alan Grayson can’t? What would America’s founders make of this process?
Asian governments should hold public hearings, encourage a public debate, and let legislatures see and vote on the TPP based on the treaty’s fully disclosed terms. If that isn’t something they can do, Asians should say no to a trade deal that’s as democratic and transparent as a one-party state.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.