Considering what’s at stake for Canada in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, it’s hard to know whether all the hype emanating from Washington these days about a “fast-approaching finish line” is accurate – or simply good, old-fashioned American negotiating tactics.
Finish lines, like red lines, do have a certain elasticity with the current administration, as we’ve seen repeatedly in Syria, America’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Russia’s incursions in Ukraine.
A glimpse at history is revealing. As the negotiations on the North American free-trade agreement were about to conclude in late 1992, the Americans were adamant that Canada and Mexico both ratify the deal without delay. Both complied. However, the United States did not manage to ratify NAFTA for almost a full year, delaying implementation to 1994 after passage by the thinnest of margins – three votes in the House of Representatives. So, elastic timetables were in vogue even back then, and Congress, not the administration is the ultimate decision-maker.
Canada’s motivation for the TPP negotiations is primarily defensive – namely to prevent the erosion of benefits under NAFTA – although we do stand to gain as well from significant market-access improvements in key Asian markets like Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.
But it is Orwellian hypocrisy for the U.S. agricultural negotiator to issue warnings to her Canadian counterparts (through gullible Canadian journalists) about changes to supply management being the price of success. Canadians should not forget that these threats emanate from a representative of an administration with farm subsidies so large on a host of agricultural commodities that they dwarf those of every nation on Earth.
One also has to wonder for whom American negotiators speak. At least the agricultural negotiator’s Canadian counterpart represents a government that has the authority not only to negotiate, but also to conclude trade agreements.
The biggest fly in the TPP ointment at this juncture is that the U.S. administration does not yet have such authority from Congress. And while the hype suggests that congressional action is imminent, there is also talk of riders being added that would make the negotiating authority less than pure or unadulterated.
If authority is granted without hooks, Canada will have to decide whether the “get” from the overall negotiations exceeds the “give,” and whether the pain of a gradual unwinding of supply management is a price worth paying in the run-up to an election. Consumers certainly stand to benefit as would Canadian food processors but supply management has long been a third rail (sacred cow!) of sorts for all political parties.
Apart from the U.S. Congress, Japan has a pivotal role on TPP. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Washington and address Congress later this month. For Japan, security ties with the United States and the ulterior TPP motive of containing China are prominent factors favouring support for the negotiation.
TPP may become a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” but there is no need to panic until the ink is dry and Congress has spoken. And the best negotiating tactic for Canada is to keep its powder dry and hedge its bets with concrete overtures to China and India that could pay similar dividends and send a much-needed signal to Washington that we are not on their leash and have other suitors who want our products and our services.