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Why A Blockbuster Of A Trade Deal With Asia Matters

Freighters wait to unload cargo at the Tanjung Pagar container port in Singapore.
Roslan Rahman
AFP/Getty Images
Freighters wait to unload cargo at the Tanjung Pagar container port in Singapore.

It has been a decade in the making, but when completed, it will be a free trade agreement to beat all others — representing 40 percent of the world's economy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, agreement would bring together the economies of the U.S., Japan, Australia and nine other Pacific Rim nations, allowing the free trade of everything from agriculture to automobiles and textiles to pharmaceuticals.

President Obama said Friday that the deal is critical for the U.S. market.

"Ninety-five percent of the world's markets are outside our borders. The fastest growing markets, the most populous markets, are going to be in Asia," he noted.

Negotiations over the trade agreement are in the final, toughest stages. Analysts say the sticking points are now between the U.S. and Japan, the two largest economies in the TPP. Both sides are trying to protect key sectors — for Japan, it's agriculture; for the U.S., it's automobiles.

Those negotiations got a new shot of life Thursday when congressional leaders agreed to give President Obama the authority to "fast track" the deal through Congress.

The move overcomes a significant hurdle in the talks because President Obama will be able to complete the deal without the details being picked apart by Congress.

Under the agreement reached Thursday, lawmakers would have the opportunity to give the TPP an up-or-down vote, but they cannot alter terms of the final agreement reached between the U.S., Japan, Australia and other countries around the Pacific Rim.

However, if the final agreement doesn't meet standards laid out by Congress on the environment, human rights or labor issues, a 60-vote majority could shut off the fast track trade rules and open the deal to amendments, according to The New York Times.

Japan and the U.S. are due to have Cabinet-level meeting over the trade deal next week, according to The Associated Press. Japan's economy minister, Akira Amari, told reporters, "We are pretty sure our talks won't break down."

Agreeing to give President Obama the authority to fast-track the deal marks a shift on the political landscape. Many Republicans are behind the bill to give the president more power. As NPR reported earlier, the trade deal is vigorously supported by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

But many Democrats oppose giving the president fast-track authority, known formally as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), saying negotiations over the Asia-Pacific trade deal are held in secret and that there would be no way to amend the details. There are also deep-seated concerns that U.S. corporations would invest in foreign factories and then ship goods back to America.

President Obama on Friday acknowledged the concern about the free trade agreement, particularly among Democrats, because people have memories about outsourcing and job loss.

Still, Obama said, "If we do not help to shape the rules so that our businesses and our workers can compete in those markets, then China will set up rules that advantage Chinese workers and Chinese businesses."

China is not part of the TPP.

The agreement giving the president fast-track authority comes less than a month after Beijing humiliated the U.S. and Japan by persuading dozens of countries, including key American allies, to join a regional infrastructure bank over objections by Washington, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It also gives new significance to an upcoming visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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