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By Lien Hoang
For his first weekend as U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer sat at the back of a stage with 20 foreign counterparts, saying the U.S. market was “attacked” by unfair trade and he would negotiate with them not as a group, but one by one.
The trade officials were in Hanoi for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, which yielded few solid deliverables for multi-country deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The morning of May 21, the 11 TPP countries said they would draw up an analysis by November to finalize the trade bloc. They also left the light on for the U.S. to return.
In the afternoon, Lighthizer soundly ruled out any homecoming to the Pacific pact, which the U.S. left in January.
“TPP-11 can make their own decisions. The United States makes its decisions,” he said in an APEC press briefing. “That’s what sovereign nations do. But we certainly expect to stay engaged.”
He was equally unequivocal about only cutting deals with one country at a time.
In response to a question from Bloomberg BNA, Lighthizer said he’d had “delightful” bilateral talks on the margins of the APEC gathering.
“Many people have said, you don’t want to go bilateral because it’s too much trouble,” he said. “Well, it’s not too much trouble.”
While the U.S. has pulled back from the global stage, countries like China and Canada have taken up the torch for international trade.
“Canada today is becoming this unique place, we’re becoming the bridge between the Asia-Pacific region and the Atlantic,” Canadian Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in an interview May 21.
On one side, Ottawa is wrapping up a trade deal with Europe, and on the other, it is weighing a TPP Minus One, whose representatives regrouped over breakfast before the APEC trade ministerial.
But if TPP fans went into this weekend hoping for a bang, they got more of a murmur, as the meeting ended with no clear appetite for new countries to ratify the accord. Japan and New Zealand passed the TPP before sending delegates to APEC Vietnam.
Trade ministers released a statement May 21 that they would work to bring the Pacific agreement “into force expeditiously,” but stopped short of pledging to enact a TPP-11.
That work means researching options to rewrite the deal without U.S. participation and presenting those options by Nov. 10-11, when TPP presidents and prime ministers will join President Donald Trump for Vietnam’s final APEC summit in the beach town of Danang.
Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo told Bloomberg BNA it’s a “big positive” that the member states still see value in the pact.
“The meeting in Viña del Mar was an opportunity for us to either say yes or no, and none of the 11 said no,” he said May 20, referring to the first TPP meeting without the U.S., in Chile. Ciobo added: “All countries are at the start line.”
His South Pacific colleague said the Hanoi breakfast diminished uncertainty about political will to forge ahead. New Zealand Trade Minister Todd McClay told Bloomberg BNA right after the breakfast, which he co-chaired: “The outcome of this meeting far exceeds our expectation.”
But in interviews, ministers from Australia, Canada, and Chile said they’re considering options, rather than vowing ratification.
Paulina Nazal Aranda, director of international economic affairs at Chile’s foreign ministry, said TPP states need to “recalibrate” for 11 members instead of 12.
“Our interest is, first, try to preserve the high-quality standard of this agreement on the table,” she told Bloomberg BNA after stepping off the APEC press briefing stage.
The 11 nations’ joint statement said the trade zone would “create new opportunities for workers, families, farmers, businesses and consumers,” and could “expand to include other economies that can accept the high standards of the TPP.”
Ciobo said the U.S. did not show “any desire” to rejoin the Pacific accord, but he was referring to “the short to medium term.” That suggested a potential change of heart in the long term, perhaps under another U.S. president.
“Our pursuit of a TPP-11 is in no way, shape, or form disrespectful to the U.S. position or anything like that. Their view is their view,” Ciobo said.
“But we will pursue what we think is in Australia’s national interest, and that is for a TPP-11 to come into effect.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Hanoi at email@example.com
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An APEC statement on the 23rd meeting of ministers is available at http://src.bna.com/o6L.
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