Latest Trade Agreements Are Re-defining Cultural Choices As 'Non-Tariff Barriers' That Need To Be Eliminated
from the insensitive-much? dept
It’s something of a misnomer to call TPP, TTIP and TISA trade agreements: they go far beyond traditional discussions about things like tariff removal, and are encroaching on domains that are as much cultural as economic. That is, many of things that the US dubs “trade barriers” are in fact long-standing expressions of national priorities, preferences and beliefs. That’s evident in an interesting post from Public Citizen’s Eyes on Trade blog, which explores the 2014 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers (pdf). Public Citizen points out:
The policies of other TPP nations criticized by the 384-page USTR report include New Zealand’s popular health programs to control medicine costs, an Australian law to prevent the offshoring of consumers’ private health data, Japan’s pricing system that reduces the cost of medical devices, Vietnam’s post-crisis regulations requiring banks to hold adequate capital, Peru’s policies favoring generic versions of expensive biologic medicines, Canada’s patent standards requiring that a medicine’s utility should be demonstrated to obtain monopoly patent rights, and Mexico’s “sugary beverage tax” and “junk food tax.”
None of those is a real trade “barrier”, but rather a policy choice seeking to bring about certain results that presumably correspond to the wishes of the local electorate. The cultural aspects of these so-called “barriers” are even clearer in the case of Malaysia:
The report takes issue with Malaysia’s “extremely high effective tariff rates” on alcohol and its strict licensing policy for the importation of pork — strange “barriers” to highlight in a country where three out of every five people are Muslim. Malaysia’s halal standards for meat have also been targeted as a “barrier” in a companion USTR report on Technical Barriers to Trade (published in 2013, the most recent edition available). USTR is concerned that Malaysia requires “slaughter plants to maintain dedicated halal production facilities and ensure segregated storage and transportation facilities for halal and non-halal products.”
Again, it’s quite evident neither of those has anything to do with “market distortions”, and everything to do with the fact that Islam is an important cultural element of Malaysian society. It is only natural that its laws and regulations should reflect that. Similarly, the following is likely to be an expression of Japanese society itself, not some evil plan to shut out foreign companies:
The report critiques Japan’s laws protecting the privacy of citizens’ personal data, calling them “unnecessarily burdensome.” The U.S. government, according to the report, “has urged the Japanese government to reexamine the provisions and application of the Privacy Act, so as to foster appropriate sharing of data…”
Presumably those laws were passed because the Japanese value their privacy, and specifically wish to limit the sharing of personal data. But the USTR seems to think it is reasonable to demand that Japanese society change its attitudes in order to make the laws less “burdensome” to US companies operating there. The Japanese section also contains the following:
The report calls for “timely and accurate disclosure” of key texts related to Japan’s postal reform, and “public release of meeting agendas, meeting minutes, and other relevant documents.” In contrast, leaks have revealed that the United States and other TPP countries have agreed to keep TPP texts classified until four years after the agreement enters into force or talks collapse.
The lack of transparency for TPP is no simple matter of hypocrisy: it is an assault on local democracy. That’s because the TPP negotiations are not haggling over a few tariffs, they are imposing a wide range of economic and social norms for an entire region. Conducted in secret, without any meaningful input from the people who will be most affected, these new-style agreements undermine the usual legislative process. This shift is yet another reason why TPP, TTIP and TISA must be opened up to allow greater public participation and input. If they are not, they are likely to be perceived as something imposed from above, and lacking in legitimacy. That’s precisely what happened with ACTA; it led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets, and ultimately rejection by the European Parliament.