As old as time
International trade has been a staple of human civilisation since the very beginning. In ancient times, trading between empires was a crucial lifeline. The silk and spice trades took fabrics and spices from India and China, crossing a continent to reach the Roman Empire. The gold trade from the Empire of Mali saw gold travel from West Africa, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean and beyond. Then, with the dawn of the nation state, things took a much more formalised turn. Trade agreements between countries were established. Then, these matured into formal free trade agreements, and beyond, into economic and political blocs such as the European Union, and ECOWAS. The latest free trade agreements to occupy the grey area between a simple trade agreement and joint administration are Africa’s Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) and the oft-discussed American initiatives the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, the implementation of the TPP may require more than a transfer of goods – sovereignty may also be on the table.
A powerful pact
TPP is a trade agreement forged between the United States and 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific. It is a pointed aim to challenge China’s manufacturing dominance, and enhance American diplomatic ties in China’s traditional sphere of influence. The economic benefits to the countries involved are potentially vast. The countries involved represent 40% of all global trade, and by uniting and combining forces, there is significant potential to increase far beyond this.
Vietnam is one such country poised to benefit from this arrangement. In fact, a study from 2011 predicted that of the 12 countries involved in the deal, Vietnam would be the primary beneficiary. By 2025, the TPP is predicted to increase Vietnam’s baseline GDP by over 14%. However, recent reports have indicated that a boost to the economy is not all that Vietnam will be receiving.
More than bargained for?
[via Go Go Pix Library]
Trade deals are not easily negotiated. The TPP has been years in the making. A variety of disputes have arisen, and negotiations have been made. For the purposes of ease of business, certain rules, such as standardised copyright protection, must be uniform across borders. However, the addition of laws beyond this may seem a step too far. The requirement that Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei bring worker’s rights and employment law in line with those of the United States may seem an infringement upon their sovereignty. Objectively, improving worker’s rights in a country where forced and child labour are in existence is undoubtedly positive. An improvement in the conditions and rights of working people is long overdue. However, the motives are suspect. These US-led demands are not for the pure altruistic good of improving the lives of Vietnam’s workers. Fears that American firms may target Vietnam for cheap production, facilitated by the TPP, have led to this requirement. Furthermore, this sets a dangerous precedent. In agreeing to implement these laws, Vietnam and other countries are signalling that further incursions upon national sovereignty are possible. Mechanisms to monitor implementation of such laws have been put in place, and if the deadlines are not met, substantial economic sanctions will be the punishment. Clearly, goods are not the only thing eligible for trade. A slice of sovereignty is on the table.