Fight against TPP not over
President Barack Obama has won one of the most important legislative battles of his nearly seven years in office. By a single vote, the US Senate awarded the president the power to negotiate trade treaties without oversight. It was a long, hard fight. His own Democratic Party senators abandoned him. The opposition Republican senators, almost unanimously, provided the victory. The president's victory is a defeat and a serious worry for Thailand.
There was some confusion about the bill under debate. Contrary to some reports, the senators were not voting on the controversial international trade treaties being negotiated with Asian and European countries. There are a lot of sets of initials being thrown around, two of which are TPP and TPA. The former is the extremely dangerous Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal which has been correctly rejected by Thailand. Last week's vote was on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) laws, a domestic US issue.
The TPA is commonly called "fast track", which is a gentle, even misleading euphemism. The so-called trade promotion authority laws put all essential authority on all international trade, bills and treaties in the president's hands. Legislators may be informed or consulted, but cannot intervene. If the president signs a trade treaty, as is likely with the TPP for Asia, the US legislature cannot change it, but only vote to adopt or reject it.
The main argument made for giving this authority to Mr Obama is that presidents in the recent past had the same power. That seems to be false reasoning. Almost all the Democratic Party members of the US Senate believed so as well. The president has heavily lobbied his party, but converted few. In the Senate, where 60 of 100 votes were required to authorise TPA powers, 13 Democrats voted for it. The other 47 votes came from senators of the opposition Republican Party, who traditionally favour international trade laws.
While it was a back-door victory, it was heartily welcomed by Mr Obama. He can now promise the other dozen Asian-Pacific countries negotiating the TPP that no pesky legislative oversight will get in his way. He can launch another round of pressure on neighbours and allies to join.
Membership in the cozy TPP club was rejected personally by then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Mr Obama personally pressed her hard to commit Thailand to his Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, but she resisted, face-to-face, when Mr Obama was in Bangkok in 2012. This was a victory for Thai trade independence. The question is whether it will turn out to be a righteous but ultimately futile gesture.
It now appears momentum is once again building for TPP agreement among the US and other nations, including several Asean allies. The pact once again is seen by most analysts to be a matter of when, not if. At first, Thailand will be able to resist many of the odious features that have been written into the bill by big business in the US.
As time goes by, TPP drawbacks will become more difficult to resist. The TPP, for example, wipes out all current exceptions to medical patents, meaning drug companies will control all aspects including availability and pricing. This is one of dozens of troubling features of the proposed treaty. And one knows details of only part of the negotiations, as leaked by Wikileaks.
In short, it now is in Thailand's interests to directly oppose the TPP. There is no advantage to joining the negotiations. But the government must use its influence, with Asean members in particular, to tone down or oppose such measures or, better still, to begin again.