The latest round of negotiations in Singapore for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)  wound up last week, still a long way short of agreement. Negotiators will meet again in January.

 Thanks to WikiLeaks and other seepages from the confidential negotiations, the public discussion is starting to come to grips with the wide scope and serious ramifications of the TPP. Intellectual property rights will affect pharmaceutical prices and entrench the discriminatory price regimes which result in Australians paying nearly twice as much as Americans for music and computer games.

Even with these leakages, how well informed is the public debate? It’s easy enough to understand why detailed negotiation is best done behind closed doors, but this is no excuse to avoid giving the public a better understanding of the broad principles being thrashed out.

Here’s just one aspect of the debate which would be helped by more transparency. If this is the platinum-standard agreement which will transform global trade for the better, how can it exclude China, our top trading partner? The usual answer is that China’s state-owned enterprises and command economy aren’t consistent with TPP principles, but if this is the case, how can Vietnam be included? 

Kurt Campbell touched on these issues in his recent Owen Harries lecture. Having said that ‘no country has done more (than America) to support China into WTO and G20’ and that America had ‘proposed many initiatives’ in its ‘sustained effort to work with China’, he noted that ‘China had shown some interest in joining’ but ended with the limp explanation that China was ‘not quite ready’ for the TPP.

Cynics might argue that America first wants to get the rules set in its favour, and then give China the same choice it had with WTO accession: join our club (with our established set of rules) or remain an outsider. Is this the best way of getting China fully engaged in the globalised economy? Australia might usefully take an independent line here.

All this hard pounding at the negotiating table still has to receive the blessing of the US Congress, with its rampant vested interests and demonstrated capacity to thwart sensible economics. Thus this may well end up a futile exercise. 

The sad reality is that the world would be better off if there was, in fact, a more comprehensive set of rules to govern international economic relationships. Having laboured so long to produce so little at Bali, it’s doubtful the WTO can do the job. But it’s also doubtful that an equitable set of rules would be approved by Congress. The TPP, lacking universality and with all its pro-US biases, may be as good as we can get.