Obama looks for headway on trade

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High-level talks centering on the completion of an Asia-Pacific trade deal pick up again this weekend, with Obama administration officials aiming to make headway on a slew of issues. 

Making progress is important for the administration not only to get the deal done, but to put some pressure on Congress to consider trade promotion authority, which would make it easier to complete trade deals by speeding up their consideration by Congress.

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Negotiators have discussed having an agreement ready in principle this spring, when Obama makes a four-nation tour around the Pacific Rim to Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Japan and Malaysia are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the administration had hoped to complete late last year.

Opponents of the deal say they won’t be surprised if the administration seeks to show progress to exert some pressure on lawmakers.

“There is a sense that whether or not any real deal is finalized, there may be an announcement of one, if only to portray the talks as not unraveling despite growing opposition to the TPP in some of the countries involved,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. 

“An announcement also could be a ploy to try to pressure Congress on trade authority and maximize President Obama’s leverage when he visits Japan.”

Business groups backing the negotiations say U.S. trading partners need to offer real concessions to get it done.

“If all sides come prepared to put on the table ambitious market-opening offers and commitments to high standards, there is the possibility for real progress,” a source with the National Association of Manufacturers told The Hill. 

“There is significant concern, however, that countries from Japan and Malaysia to Canada may not be prepared to make those commitments,” the source said. 

This weekend's talks will be held in Singapore, and will be attended by trade ministers including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.

While the trade deal is concentrated in the Pacific Rim, it stretches around the world from Mexico to Australia and Japan to Peru.

On Friday, Japanese economy minister Akira Amari told reporters that there is still a large gap between the Washington and Tokyo on issues such as greater access for U.S. auto exports and Japanese agricultural products, such as rice. 

U.S. and Japanese negotiators, who have been talking in parallel as part of the broader discussions, were aiming to forge a bilateral deal before the weekend discussions started. 

Many lawmakers have expressed doubt that Japan will be willing to make the changes needed to satisfy them enough to gain their support.

Froman before his trip hawked the benefits of the TPP and the need for trade promotion authority as the administration sought to warm-up Democrats who have been cool to the agenda.

The Pacific deal is a direct part of the White House’s efforts to rebalance its policies toward the economically burgeoning Asia-Pacific region, a cornerstone of President Obama’s foreign policy.

Many Democrats are skeptical that the TPP will be different from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) championed by President Bill Clinton.

“Rather than creating jobs, NAFTA has contributed to an enormous new U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and Canada, the outsourcing of good jobs and depressed wages in America,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in an email to The Hill. 

“Twenty years after NAFTA, we are now getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership forced on us, with the same kinds of incentives to outsource jobs that will leave American workers at the mercy of a race to the bottom.”

Obama at a summit this week with Mexico and Canada insisted that while some Democrats oppose the deal, his entire party doesn’t.

He emphasized his determination to complete the deal, arguing a completed TPP would allow North American businesses to compete in the region.  

Besides the United States, the TPP involves Singapore, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Mexico, Chile and Peru.