A month ago, international trade was in the headlines. President Obama had just obtained Trade Promotion Authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and in Australia, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) was signed. But then all went quiet.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb.

The ministerial meeting in Hawaii that was supposed to finalise the details of TPP didn't reach full agreement. ChAFTA's passage through the Australian parliament is not without opposition. Both these initiatives, however, are still very much alive.

The TPP negotiations are being held behind closed doors, but there seem to be three problems:

  • Canada doesn't want to open up its milk market, while New Zealand (the world's biggest exporter of processed milk) sees this as an important issue.
  • In automobiles, the US wants better access to the Japanese market. Interaction between TPP and NAFTA rules are also complicating this trade.
  • The US pharmaceutical industry wants to keep its biologics testing results secret for 12 years, but Australia thinks five years would be enough.

There may be other issues as well (Australian sugar producers are still hoping to open up the US market), but these are the main stumbling blocks. None of them look insurmountable.  It's hard to see further protection for pharmaceuticals as a deal-breaker for Australia even though our trade minister has given assurances that the TPP will not undermine Australia's pharmaceutical benefits arrangements, a key component of social welfare.

Nor will the deal be lost because of US-Japanese auto trade. Some observers would regard US manufacturers' hopes of shipping lots of cars to Japan as a conceit and a delusion. But even if there is substance in this trade-opening initiative, it's too small to stand in the way.

It seems just as unlikely that dairy trade will torpedo the agreement, although it might mean that Canada joins late (or New Zealand, as one of the initiators of the TPP, goes away very disappointed). It's just not substantive enough to stop the broad-reaching TPP from going forward.

Given Obama's high-profile commitment to the TPP and the need to put substance into the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, he is not going to lose this one without a very serious fight.

The wild card in all this is the US Congress. With the various delays, Congressional consideration is unlikely to take place until next year, while the presidential election is in full swing. There will be the usual Congressional histrionics in defence of local interests, and the vote could be lost, almost by accident. This is the main threat to the TPP. 

The pity of the current debate is that it largely misses the substance of the TPP. Most of this horse-trading has been old-fashioned guerrilla resistance to the longer-term inevitability of integrated global markets. The essence of the TPP is not in trade-opening measures (although they are present, of course), but rather in its effort to lay down a set of broad rules to cover general aspects of international trade, with intellectual property (IP) rights the most prominent. 

IP (and the other behind-the-border issues) are not the win-win issues which usually characterise reductions in global trade barriers. Instead, the rules around IP arbitrate the division of the benefits of innovation between owners and users – a zero-sum game. This should be settled not by an arm-wrestle between trade negotiators, but by a technical consideration of which rules offer the greatest incentives to ongoing innovation. Giving past inventors a monopoly may not be the best way to foster future innovation.

Australia's stand on pharmaceutical data secrecy is on the side of the angels. It's inefficient to keep testing data secret, because it ends up either lost to the wider community or duplicated by other researchers. But it's inconceivable that we would take our principled stance to the stage where we walked away from the negotiations. There is too much else at stake to want to infuriate the US over this issue.

If the TPP goes ahead, the outcome on these rule-setting issues (not just IP but also investor-state dispute settlement) will be a measure of how successful our negotiators have been. 

In the longer term, history may judge the most important issue to be the exclusion of China from the negotiations. Does this tactic allow a superior set of global trading rules to be put in place, with China coming to adopt these later, to everyone's benefit? Or will this turn out to be a missed opportunity to make China a responsible stakeholder in global economic infrastructure, helping to convince it that cooperation within such a framework is better than confrontation?

We don't know if Australia's negotiators ever explored this issue. But we now have the example of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which suggests that where China is blocked from full participation (as it has been in the IMF and World Bank), it seeks alternative arrangements where its role, for good or bad, will be exercised more individually.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user TPP Media Australia.