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Protests greet Trans-Pacific trade talks in Malaysia; Obama holding the cards to Japan entry

About 100 rights activists and union members protested this morning outside the hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where another round of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks got started today. It’s the first time officials from TPP nations–Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam–have met since a leaders’ summit in Hawaii in November next to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

According to Kyodo news, this morning’s protestors, “who were holding placards saying ‘Don’t Trade Away Our Lives’ and shouting ‘Say No to the FTA’ and ‘U.S., Go Home,’ demanded there should be no more TPP meetings until the Malaysian or the U.S. governments disclose more details about the deal.”

Like in many other TPP countries, the effect of U.S.-pushed intellectual property rules on drug prices is a big concern. Not only would it reduce availability and increase prices of generic drugs for domestic consumption and export to developing countries, but specific U.S. proposals on domestic regulation could undermine or eliminate price controls in New Zealand, Australia and, if it joins, Japan.

“All the free trade agreements claim to foster free competition and competitiveness between manufacturers, thus creating end-user benefits for consumers, but we are not convinced,” said Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Japan General Director Eric Ouannes last month. “If intellectual property rights for major drugs are heavily protected, the prices of generic drugs that are often used in humanitarian aid activities will rise, which will increase the burden on MSF and other international organizations.”

You can read more about this on the Don’t Trade Away Our Lives weblog, which was created to “update, share and comment on recent events regarding Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), European Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which are designed to maximize the profit of a few pharmaceutical companies and minimize access to essential drugs for millions of people in the developing world.”


Joining the TPP, as Prime Minister Harper announced he would like to do at the APEC conference in Honolulu, is not as easy as saying you want to. According to Inside U.S. Trade, “Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler last week signaled that the United States is only willing to let Japan join the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks if Japan can clearly demonstrate in the near term that it is willing and able to address longstanding barriers to U.S. exports, especially non-tariff barriers (NTBs).”

What are the key irritants for the U.S.? Beef market access, automotive market access and “Japan’s rollback of the privatization of its postal and insurance sectors,” says the online journal. “According to Cutler, TPP negotiations will continue as the United States, Japan, and other TPP partners consider the possibility that Japan could join the talks. The speed with which this could happen depends in part on how soon Japan can offer up convincing responses to U.S. priority issues, she signaled.”

Harper will be in Washington tomorrow. It’s reported the meeting with Obama will result in the signing of a 32-point border action plan. The two leaders could also talk TPP and Canada’s desire to enter the negotiations after two years. Media so far have reported the cost of Canada joining would be to signal it’s willing to end supply management in the dairy, poultry and egg sectors. The Globe and Mail runs almost daily rants against the system of protections for Canadian farmers who do not export their goods (i.e. supply management is not trade-distorting). Harper has committed to keeping the system as he enters the TPP.

Jeffrey Simpson, a regular Globe columnist, wrote on December 4 that “no country can join by establishing preconditions, as Canada wants. Said U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk this week: ‘Potential new entrants must be prepared to address a range of U.S. priorities and issues, and meet the high standards sought by all TPP partners.’ Read: Canada and supply management.”

But, writes Simpson, “The Harper government knows the Americans have agriculture subsides aplenty. No U.S. administration will sacrifice those. So the Obama administration will wink, nod and put pressure on other participants to let in Canada, regardless of the U.S. Trade Representative’s hard-line stand.”

Maybe, but the U.S. has other pressure points, namely on intellectual property protection. Like the EU in its free trade talks with Canada, the U.S. will want concessions for its major drug producers and entertainment firms. With Mexico also pushing to join the TPP, this will be the most significant expansion of NAFTA since the deal was signed in 1994. We could lose the broad exemption in NAFTA for Canada’s cultural sector, which would have a crippling effect on Canadian artists and culture.

We’ll get a sense tomorrow how much Harper was willing to cave in to U.S. security demands in the perimeter deal. We might get more hints about caving capacity in the TPP talks also.