More than 200 professional trade negotiators in Chicago this week and half of last week are slogging through what is expected to be a comprehensive and extensive Asia-Pacific TransPacific Partnership free trade agreement – if stars align correctly in the coming months.
The TPP participants are the United States, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. For the most part the negotiators are keeping their noses buried in some 20-plus topics – ranging from market access, textiles, government procurement to new issues like access for small and medium size enterprises, streamlining of national customs procedures and "access to medicines."
What is unmentionable here, but on the top of everyone’s thoughts is the fate of the long-pending US free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. They were all negotiated and completed by the Bush Administration but has languished without action for over two years by the Obama Administration. Once promised to be passed by Congress by the end of July, officials and interested – and optimistic – members of Congress now don’t expect to see action before December.
For the career – and non-political – negotiators here the FTAs are none of their business. In the negotiating rooms are concentrating on TPP issues. But outside – in the hallways and over lunch and dinner breaks – talk quickly shifts to the FTAs, WTD was told by several participants here. One participate explained it in simple terms – hard decisions on the most important aspects of the TPP negotiations cannot be made until the final fate of the FTAs is settled. Who wants to expend the time making offers and giving concessions in TPP without knowing whether the one major player in the talks – the United States – will follow through on those commitments, asked one participant.
TPP negotiators will stick to discussing some sensitive issues in the talks and perhaps negotiate some resolutions on technical matters. But nothing significant will occur in the coming months because of the FTA morass in Washington – further delaying conclusion of the TPP talks until well into 2012.
There also were some 250 "stakeholders" – more familiarly known as lobbyists in Washington parlance. They are talking about the details of TPP, but also are keeping their eyes and discussions focused on the FTAs. They are as perplexed over the procedural system in Washington as the negotiators. None of the "stakeholders" – many of whom have spent entire careers in the trade arena inside and outside of Washington – understand the reasons behind the morass in Washington. All they know if the FTAs situation does not result in action soon, TPP talks will collapse.