Trans Pacific Partnership: Advancing Human Rights

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Is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) a wholesale hazard for human rights in authoritarian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore?  I strongly believe the answer is a clear “no,” because TPP can be good for both economic and political freedom.

Bringing countries into a rules-based environment, especially where some of the rules can improve respect for basic human rights, is almost always a net gain. Increased trade is not the universal solvent that will wash away dictatorships in some determinist way (see China).  Yet when grounded in fair, consistent, predictable rules and in transparency, it creates incentives for political and economic liberalization.

It’s especially important when one mammoth power, China, is tirelessly working to establish economic ties throughout the world — from Asia to Africa to the Americas — that totally ignore basic rights, values, and norms.  Already, China’s trade strategy has significantly undermined initiatives by the United States and Europe to use trade agreements with African governments to counter rampant corruption.  Indeed, Beijing has made its values-free approach a major selling point in its dealings with governments that are comfortable with the old, and corrupt, ways of operating. 

The Trans Pacific Partnership is the most solid step in an inconsistently implemented "Asia Pivot" by the United States, intended to counterbalance China's rise as Beijing defiantly pursues policies inimical to human rights at home, to sovereignty over the Spratly and Senkaku Islands, and to trade without currency manipulation worldwide.

China's practices and model may be the most serious challenge to democracy today, more so, in the long run, than the brittle Middle East dictatorships, the Islamic State that is challenging them, other terrorist movements, and Vladimir Putin’s pernicious combination of domestic repression and imperialist designs on his Eurasian neighbors.  The Trans Pacific Partnership is a multilateral, nonmilitary instrument to counter Chinese policies that are corrosive of both economic and political freedom.

Backing TPP also creates diplomatic leverage to advance freedom in East Asia.  As former head of the State Department office combating human trafficking, and responsible for an annual report that determined whether nations would be subject to sanctions, I am more than confident that TPP would increase the United States’ bargaining power, such as for Malaysia, which was ranked in the 2014 report’s lowest “tier.”

By holding out the prospect of TPP membership, canny diplomacy could get the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand to at least incrementally improve their civil liberties, labor rights, and anti-trafficking record. Vietnam and other states depend, of course, on access to markets larger than their own. This is the chance for the United States to entice those states with opportunities for both democratic reform and their economies. 

This will require diplomatic spine, including the willingness to refuse to make a nation eligible for fast-track consideration unless it begins move forward on these fundamental freedoms.  Senators Cardin and Menendez have rightly been pushing for and winning assurances that countries will indeed to show genuine progress. 

Congress should support the Trade Promotion Authority and thus the TPP. They would create a more rules-based, transparent order as well as greater leverage to get nations to respect human rights.  And then Congress and the American public should vigilantly insist the Executive Branch use that leverage, whatever party is in power.

Mark P. Lagon is President of Freedom House and former U.S. Ambassador at Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons.


Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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