Saturday, September 24, 2011

It’s not easy writing an interesting story about an ongoing trade negotiation.

WTD spent a full 10 days in Chicago earlier in the month to try to get something on the progress of the TransPacific Partnership negotiations – just about the only trade game the United States has going.

The top stars of the show were career trade negotiators – many with experience in Geneva – where hardly ever a word is spoken to the press. They understand their own back and forth banter but generally have a hard time putting what they mean into plain words that the public can understand.

TPP participates are the United States, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.

Despite the secret nature of the negotiations – which is quite understandable since the TPP negotiations are about mid-way to completion and very sensitive – host US Trade Representative urged press to attend. So we went – but not many others.

There we were along with Inside US Trade – who was there for the first three days of the negotiations. Coming for the end were Washington reporters from Reuter and Bloomberg news service. Also on hand for the three official press availabilities were Chicago-based reporters from the Bureau of National Affairs, the Associated Press, a local television station and reporters from two or three Japanese news outlets.

The concluding press conference was led by Assistant USTR Barbara Weisel and attended by the other seven of the eight lead negotiators. The Chilean negotiator took an early plane home.

The press conference opened with a short and rather stiff statement – read in the quiet but quite pleasant voice of Ms. Weisel – outlining in minimal terms where progress was made and where more is needed.

WTD reported that aspect in its September 16 issue –

Ms. Weisel said many chapters – including customs, technical barriers to trade, telecommunications, government procurement and new issues on small- and medium-sized enterprises, regulatory coherence, competitiveness and development – are moving toward closure. Progress also was made – but more is needed – on some complex chapters, including intellectual property and investment.

In an effort to put a little life in that description for our readers, WTD asked Ms. Weisel and the other negotiators if there was any particular area of progress which was perhaps surprising or unanticipated when they gathered more than a week earlier for the talks.

The answer – following a moment of silence – was spoken by Ms. Weisel, who said she had just said where the progress was.

None of the other commented except New Zealand’s negotiator – who speaks "New Zealand" in a heavy accent and mumbles. It took quite a few listenings of the tape to find out that he essentially added nothing.

The beginning set the pace and substance of the half-hour session. There were some questions on labor to the Vietnam delegate and a lot of questions from the Japanese press about prospects for Tokyo joining the talks.

WTD wrapped up the session asking if the delegation could give an indication of when the TPP might conclude. They are expected to send a detailed account of the negotiations by the time of the November APEC Leaders’ meeting in Honolulu and have another negotiating session in Lima next month.

The answer from Ms. Weisel – "We working as hard as we can to conclude a comprehensive agreement"

What an experience.

Jim Berger

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