Caution: Free trade ahead

Caution: Free trade ahead

US President Barack Obama arrives for his first visit Thailand on Sunday. The US president will be welcomed both officially and popularly, as head of state of an historical ally, and as an admired world leader. But Mr Obama's chief business in Thailand is business, not politicking. He will hand a formal invitation to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to join negotiations for his pet Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This proposed trade deal is fraught with dangers for Thailand.

When Mr Obama came to office nearly four years ago, he stated that a major vision was to re-establish his country as a Pacific power. His Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and successive defence secretaries have carried out that policy, even as Mr Obama struggled to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to update US ties with Europe. The military "pivot" of armed forces from Europe to Asia is under way, as is a strong push of the key economic policy of the TPP.

The TPP actually got its start under ex-president George W Bush, with four countries buying into the Washington definition of free trade: Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam _ with Hanoi desperate to boost US relations. Mr Obama took the TPP as his own, and has boosted both the public profile and membership of the group.

At present, Mr Obama has convinced eight Pacific nations _ plus the US of course _ to join TPP negotiations, out of the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific region. Australia and New Zealand are in, as are Peru and Chile. Important countries still mulling the idea include Japan, China, Russia. US neighbours Mexico and Canada still have reservations. Which brings us to Mr Obama and Sunday.

Washington pushes the TPP as a free-trade group. That raises visions of duty-free cars, cross-border technology and lower food prices. In fact, the aim of US negotiators in the TPP talks is quite different. While the bargaining is behind closed doors, it is known that the TPP centres almost entirely on intellectual property. It is part of what Washington claims will "provide a level playing field in trade" _ but which others see as a huge tilt of that field towards the US.

Thai activists already have warned the government about one severely dangerous aim of TPP. The Partnership calls for drastic new rules on patents, specifically on medicines. Behind the obfuscation, TPP would restrict _ effectively end _ the right of Thailand to produce life-saving medicines at an affordable price. Since 2007, the United States has punished Thailand for doing exactly that legal thing, by sticking the country on its Special 301 Watch List as a patent pirate. In fact, Thailand has strictly stuck to international law on the issue, law that the TPP wants to change.

Other parts of the TPP hold equally controversial hidden traps. It proposes to strengthen US control of the internet, for example. The section on agricultural contains no language about trade, but deals almost exclusively with a focus on patents and the secrecy of testing of agricultural products.

The government should thank Mr Obama and accept his invitation to participate in TPP talks. But it must proceed carefully, with a promise to submit any subsequent agreement to parliament for approval. The TPP could advance trade, but not without significant changes in its unfair sections.

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