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Nov 14, 2011

Beware of what lurks beneath free trade agreements

The hyping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has begun. But on some issues it's cover for a predatorial United States.

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In lieu of any substantive outcomes from the APEC Leaders’ Summit, the government has opted to s-x up the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a key development in free trade for Australia.

The Prime Minister and Trade Minister Craig Emerson opted not to bandy figures around about the potential benefits of an agreement, avoiding the remorseless hyping of benefits that accompanied previous FTAs, which the Productivity Commission later cast fairly serious doubt on. Instead, they settled for repeatedly noting that the TPP countries covered a quarter of global GDP. If Japan joined, they noted, it would be a third of global GDP.

Sounds impressive until you actually note the countries involved — Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. We already have an FTA with Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam via ASEAN and one with the Americans. No wonder Gillard and Emerson were at pains to talk up the possible accession of Japan.

The welcome mat wasn’t out for China, though. The Chinese lament about not being invited prompted one of the choicer quotes of modern trade diplomacy from Mike Froman, US deputy National Security Adviser, who described the TPP as “not something that one gets invited to. It’s something that one aspires to.”

In other words, China, it’s not us, it’s you.

The Chinese regard the TPP as a vehicle for pushing US influence in the region. The Chinese analysis, while self-serving, is in this case correct. Many chapters of the TPP have been under negotiation for months. The chapter on intellectual property was leaked earlier in the year and revealed a US “aspiration” to revive many of the draconian IP-related provisions it had failed to have included in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in 2010.

Since then, IP expert Kimberlee Weatherall has shown just how much impact a number of the draft TPP proposals would have on Australians, including the imposition of statutory damages for filesharing, and the extension of powers to extract private customer information from ISPs. Health academic Deborah Gleeson has also shown how damaging the pharmaceutical-related draft provisions could be to Australia’s PBS.

When it comes to intellectual property, the United States is a predator, determined to exploit every possible mechanism to impose its own draconian approach to IP — crafted at the behest of corporate giants in the copyright, agriculture and pharmaceutical industries — on other countries. The WikiLeaks cables repeatedly demonstrated the importance attached to intellectual property interests by US diplomats. Having failed to achieve its goals with ACTA, the US is clearly using the TPP as a means of establishing a new IP benchmark with a smaller, more pliable grouping of countries.

There was a further sequel to the WikiLeaks cables last week. A US court upheld the Department of Justice’s subpoena to Twitter to force it to reveal information about the Twitter accounts of Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum (the only one of the trio who resides in the US) and Rop Gonggrijp of the Netherlands, all linked to WikiLeaks. It’s assumed Facebook and Google received similar subpoenas, but Twitter was the only company to inform its customers and contest the subpoena and the demand for secrecy that accompanied it.

The order also covered the WikiLeaks twitter account, meaning details of all one million-plus followers of that account will be provided to the Department of Justice, as part of its ongoing attempt to conjure a prosecution against Julian Assange.

For the United States, extraterritorial application of its domestic laws is a key objective. The TPP will be a powerful vehicle for doing just that.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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