Obama gets 'fast track' authority for TPP deal

But more remains to be done before trade agreement becomes a reality

MORE work lies ahead for the 12 Pacific Rim nations before their trade accord becomes a reality, even though the United States Congress has granted President Barack Obama "fast track" authority, a key step in the process, said trade experts.

"Everybody has been waiting for TPA to lay down their final offers," said trade policy analyst Bill Watson from think-tank Cato Institute, referring to the Trade Promotion Authority that gives the President power to negotiate trade deals by limiting Congress to a "yes" or "no" vote on them. "But with the number of issues remaining, it seems like it might still take a while."

Experts say some sticking points include intellectual property rights, US-Japan market access and the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The Obama administration's inability to obtain TPA, also referred to as "fast track" authority, had been largely blamed for the delay in the completion of the Pacific Rim deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

After weeks of political wrangling, it was only on Wednesday that the Senate voted in favour of granting TPA to Mr Obama.

This came after a huge setback on June 12, when House Democrats tried to torpedo TPA by voting down a companion worker aid programme. The House then found a way to pass TPA without the programme last week, leading to Wednesday's vote.

Singapore yesterday welcomed the passage of TPA. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: "This is an important development that will facilitate the conclusion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

Indeed, now that TPA is in the bag, observers are turning focus to the TPP negotiations and how each state's lawmakers will react to the final language of the pact.

Ms Lisa Sachs, director of the Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment at Columbia University, said: "There are, of course, many complex issue areas and the parties involved have diverse interests and priorities, so I expect that the actual negotiations will face some challenges."

For example, Mr Watson said countries still have to negotiate the final concessions they are willing to make on tariffs.

Japan and the US are a case in point. While Japan has high tariffs on agricultural products such as rice and dairy, the US has restrictions on car imports. "These are some of the things that will need to work themselves out," he said.

Still, some high-level officials have recently expressed optimism in fast completion of negotiations.

Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb was quoted in the media last week as saying "we are literally one week of negotiation away from completing this extraordinary deal", while Japan's Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters on Wednesday that a broad agreement on TPP could be reached next month.

After the deal is signed, each state will have to have it ratified by their lawmakers.

In the US, lawmakers will, among other things, look out for the inclusion of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism which some worry might hinder the government's ability to regulate investors. They will also look at what is being done to ensure high environmental standards.

Such topics, said Ms Sachs "were already very heatedly discussed in the context of TPA".

If history is any indication, the chances of TPP passing the Congress are good. Mr Watson said: "It's been a long time since Congress voted 'no' on a trade deal."

However, experts caution that controversial legislation like the TPP would be more difficult to pass once campaigning for the 2016 US presidential election goes into full swing next year.

Professor William Grimes of Boston University said: "Legislators will calculate their voting decisions based on what will help their party's nominee (or preferred nominee)."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'Obama gets 'fast track' authority for TPP deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe