Look who's not invited
A Pacific Rim trade plan driven by the US conspicuously excludes China, just one of the flaws in a process that serves corporate America
US President Barack Obama obviously hates WikiLeaks already and must be fuming at last week's leak of the draft of the chapter on intellectual property of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which is a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
But the hundreds of millions of people directly affected and the several billion indirectly involved should be grateful and must now hope that the leak will deal a death blow to this dangerously secretive way of negotiating international trade deals. At the very least, the revelation should ensure Obama does not get fast-track authority to push the deal through Congress before the end of the year.
The TPP has long been controversial because critics complain the exclusion of China from the talks now involving 12 Pacific Rim countries is part of an attempt by America to maintain its hegemony.
But even staunch supporters of free trade - who point out that a genuinely free-trade agreement should be a win-win situation for all players - are unhappy with fundamental aspects of this deal, some of which the WikiLeaks documents reveal. Among the complaints are:
- The TPP has a basic political intent because it excludes China;
- It is undemocratic because there has been insufficient public discussion or debate about proposals and arguments going on behind closed doors;
- It is not basically a trade agreement because of the 29 chapters that have been admitted to be part of the negotiations, only five deal directly with trade - the other 25 are concerned with food and environmental standards, intellectual property rights and other issues;
- The TPP as constituted plays into the hands of big US firms, especially pharmaceutical companies and Disney, which are the major beneficiaries and have been allowed to shape the negotiations even as politicians and the public have been excluded.
Some of the most strident opponents of the deal, including Yves Smith, founder of the blog Naked Capitalism, claim that if the TPP goes through, it could kill people in order to enrich big US pharmaceutical companies. "The intent is to strengthen America's aggressive patent regime and require foreign countries to comply with it," Smith wrote.
The US Food and Drug Administration is generally sympathetic to Big Pharma and will allow a minor change to an existing drug - for example, an extended-release version of a pill that needs to be taken only once a day - to get a new patent.
The effect, if the US gets its way, would be to make drugs more expensive throughout the TPP area and to make cheaper generic drugs less available. But the planned TPP provisions will apply to surgical procedures and medical devices as well as drugs, at the instigation of the big US corporations.
Medicins sans Frontieres, the international medical and aid charity, criticised the TPP provisions, saying: "The TPP currently includes some of the harshest provisions against access to medicines ever included in a trade agreement with developing countries, gutting public health safeguards and leaving them unable to take the steps needed to protect the lives and health of their people above the profit of multinational pharmaceutical companies."
Some governments, including Canada, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore are pushing back, but the big US corporations are fighting hard with the advantage of privileged access to discussions.
Other big winners will be large entertainment companies such as Disney, which have been pushing for extended copyright protection beyond the hitherto accepted terms. Internet service providers will be expected to act as copyright police.
This controversy has been started over just one leaked chapter of the TPP, although the draft has been updated twice since the leaked version, but no one has revealed in which ways.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange said: "If instituted, the TPP's IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression … If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you're ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its cross hairs."
Smith claims that the way the secretive TPP talks have been going on - with 700 corporate executives helping to frame the debate while Congress is kept in the dark - is proof of the "corporatisation of America".
Unfortunately, as WikiLeaks has shown, in modern America, money talks.