Hatch suggests US ink Asia-Pacific deal with only countries that meet high standards

A top Senate Republican is urging U.S. trade officials to move forward on an Asia-Pacific trade deal with only those countries willing to adopt the highest standards. 

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (Utah) sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on Monday night suggesting that he wrap up work on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by year's end with those willing to maintain high standards in areas such as intellectual property. 

"I believe that a strong, comprehensive agreement with a group of committed trading partners is far preferable to accepting a weakened agreement merely for the sake of including all countries that entered the negotiations," Hatch wrote. 

Negotiators of the TPP — Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile and Peru — have said they are aiming to complete a deal by year's end. 

Froman has said that the United States won't settle on a less-than-ambitious deal even if it means missing the target year-end deadline set out by the TPP's leaders. 

In the letter Hatch suggested wrapping up negotiations on a staggered timetable as countries become willing to meet the high TPP standards. 

"I am increasingly concerned that some of our negotiating partners may not be willing to undertake the high level of ambition necessary for the agreement to be approved by Congress," he wrote. 

"These concerns span a spectrum of issue in both market access and rules."

Hatch cited past instances, including the Andean trade talks, where trade deals have been inked with only those countries willing to agree to higher stands. The Andean deal started out with four countries — Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia — and U.S. negotiators opted to complete separate deals, first with Peru in 2007 and then with Colombia in 2011. 

"I am hopeful that you will be able to conclude negotiations with all current TPP negotiating partners," he wrote.

"But, as history shows, if some of the negotiating partners lack the necessary ambition to conclude a high-standard agreement, it is possible — and preferable — to conclude a strong agreement, rather than allowing a small number of countries to weaken the agreement for all." 

The idea behind the TPP is that once completed any nation willing to adopt its standards would be able to join. Last week, South Korea expressed interest in joining the deal, which would represent 40 percent of the world's economic growth. 

Hatch noted that he would be "particularly concerned" especially if any of the other 11 nations involved in the trade talks would settle for rules that don't afford strong intellectual property rights protections, including "12 years of regulatory data protection for biologics and the elimination of restrictions on cross-border data flows."

Vice President Joe Biden met on Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday about moving forward with completing a TPP agreement.

"To state the obvious, for the countries involved, the decisions and the compromises that need to be made are very sensitive and very difficult," Biden said in a press conference.

"The upsides of getting such an agreement done are almost beyond comprehension. They're incredibly positive for all countries involved."

The United States and Japan also are conducting parallel negotiations, which will be included in a final TPP deal, designed to provide greater market access to U.S. exports.

"But the reward does not diminish the realization of how difficult the compromises needed to be made are," Biden said.  

"We need a comprehensive agreement that involves longstanding differences between the United States and Japan, including issues like agriculture and automobiles. And it’s difficult."

Abe expressed optimism about completing the deal this year, saying "that Japan and the United States need to solve major pending issues through cooperation, and then should show a path toward conclusion of negotiation within this year."