RICHARD WOOLCOTT. Why is the government still pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Feb 9, 2017

An important matter facing Australia is how to find a sound balance between China’s relations with neighbouring countries and with the United States.  This has become a strategic issue in the region.  So far China seems to be handling it more effectively than the United States.  

The TPP was launched in 2007 originally by New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore and Chile.  Subsequently it was signed by twelve countries but each government had to ratify it for the partnership to commence.  Early last year it became evident that both the United States Democrats and Republicans had decided not to ratify the Partnership.

The aim of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), endorsed by national leaders at the 19th ASEAN Summit in November 2011, was to build a modern, comprehensive, high quality and mutually beneficial Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Negotiations between ASEAN as a group, China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand were underway in 2013 but it was already clear then that China would have a preference the RCEP.

I was, therefore, surprised when our Foreign Minister, meeting with her Chinese colleague on 7 February 2017, suggested to the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that China should join the TPP.  Again, this seems very strange as China will definitely not do so and our Government has again put itself in a position of pressing a proposal which is destined to fail.

Minister Wang Yi said “for any sober minded politician, they clearly recognise that there cannot be a conflict between China and the United States because both will lose – and both sides cannot afford that”.  He added that it was important in any discussions “to give priority to diplomatic efforts”.

Our sustained pressure in favour of the TPP was followed by subsequent pressure to attempt to persuade China to involve itself in the TPP.  The United States had also previously attempted to persuade important countries like India and Indonesia to associate themselves with the TPP without success.

These processes are relevant to Prime Minister Turnbull’s first discussion with President Trump in which Trump indicated that he proposed to maintain the refugee resettlement deal which Turnbull had negotiated with President Obama.  Trump’s unhappiness, however, was evident in his statement “I will study this dumb deal”.  The White House Spokesman added that there will be “extreme vetting on every single one of those individuals”.

These two disclosures explain why Mr Turnbull has so far declined to elaborate on his phone call other than to say it ended courteously.  The Prime Minister would have also had in his mind the separate agreement Australia had made to join a United States led multilateral plan to resettle US refugees from Costa Rica.  Presumably Trump would have been unaware of this proposal.

The outcome is yet to be determined and may take some time before we know whether Trump will accept what he described as a “dumb deal”, or use the “extreme vetting” process to prevent any real progress taking place.

Richard Woolcott AC is a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to Indonesia and Ambassador to the UN from 1982 to 1988.

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