Secretive China-led mega-trade deal stalls

By Leith van Onselen

At the beginning of the year, the Turnbull Government revealed that Australia would head into a new secretive 16-member mega trade pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was expected to be concluded by year’s end. The RCEP is backed by China and also includes the ASEAN countries along with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

While not a lot is known about RCEP, Peter Martin reported that the deal would include some of the same deleterious features that are present in the TPP, at the behest of the business lobby:

Leaked chapters of the draft agreement contain the same sort of investor-state dispute settlement procedures as the TPP…

Whereas in the TPP, Australia’s delegations took community as well as business groups into its confidence, so far with the RCEP it’s only been business groups. Patricia Ranald of the Fair Trade and Investment Network says that might be because, at least to start with, the US is excluded. It’s a relatively open democracy. China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other RCEP members are not.

Just as with the TPP, our negotiators are releasing no texts and submitting none of what’s proposed to cost-benefit analysis. There’s every chance it will cut across rather than intermesh with the TPP and our other trade agreements. There’s every chance we won’t be told until it’s too late.

So, from what we know of RCEP, it looks like another secretive mega trade deal that would open Australian taxpayers to legal challenges from multinationals, thus potentially endangering public health safeguards, environmental protections and workers’ rights, as well as risking ”regulatory chill” – a phenomenon whereby the government reverses or fails to pursue important regulations due to fear of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) lawsuits.

With this background in mind, I am happy to report that RCEP has been put on ice until next year:

China hoped to have the meat of the deal… done by the end of this year…

But the timetable has slipped, with sticking points over free access to markets remaining — and a raft of general elections early next year likely to further hamper its progress.

Speaking in Singapore, Premier Li said he hoped RCEP would be signed and implemented next year.

“It (RCEP) is going to deliver real benefits to the people of our region,” he said, without giving a date.

China was now the standard bearer of global free trade, he added, with the 16-member RCEP deal at the heart of its strategy…

Trade diplomats said negotiations will run deep into 2019.

Clearly, RCEP represents another wedge in Australia’s vital strategic relationship with the US.

Meanwhile, the Productivity Commission (PC) has warned that Australia’s trade negotiations have been “characterised by a lack of transparent and robust analysis, a vacuum consequently filled at times by misleading claims”, and has called on the “final text of an agreement to be rigorously analysed before signing”.

The PC has also explicitly requested that the government “seek to avoid the inclusion of Investors-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions in bilateral and regional trade agreements that grant foreign investors in Australia substantive or procedural rights greater than those enjoyed by Australian investors”.

Of course, the last thing this government wants is “transparent and robust” processes. No doubt, if/when RCEP is signed, the deal will be rammed through parliament without a thorough assessment by the PC, as was the case with the TPP.

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