By Matthew Schewel
Inside U.S. Trade

SAN DIEGO — A U.S. trade official held open the possibility that current parties would seek to renegotiate a completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement to address the new issues that would arise if Japan sought to join after the deal has entered into force.

In July 3 remarks at the Institute of the Americas, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Barbara Weisel said that the subsequent entry of Japan or another country would likely require an additional vote in Congress, as would be the case if TPP parties themselves reopened the agreement to change its obligations.

Weisel said the “general approach” to future TPP accessions would be for acceding countries to sign on to the agreement’s existing rules and make specific market access commitments on goods and services.

But she held open the possibility that TPP partners may take advantage of the opportunity posed by the entry of a new country to revisit the agreement. This could be to address any issues that the current TPP members feel were not fully dealt with in the initial agreement or issues that the acceding country raises.

“Let’s just say for example Japan decided it wanted to join, and it wasn’t in the first tranche,” she said. “They’re in the second tranche, and there’s a whole new set of issues that are related to Japan that we didn’t actually completely cover properly in the agreement that now are before us because Japan has decided it wants to join.”

In that case, the TPP parties would likely reopen the original deal in order to consider those issues related to Japan, she said.

She also held open the possibility that acceding countries would seek changes to the TPP that the current members would have to entertain. “And I think there will be issues that those [acceding] countries want to reopen that we would have to determine as a group whether or not we want to do that,” Weisel said.

At the same time, Weisel noted that it could be problematic to reopen a deal that has just been concluded. “It’s always a tricky question when you’re opening these trade agreements, because once you reopen it, you just don’t want to spend another five years redoing what you just did,” she said.

Weisel made the overall point that if parties agreed on additional obligations after a TPP agreement was in place, it would require another vote in Congress if the change required any changes to U.S. law. “And you would always have to bring it before Congress as a new trade agreement if you’re adding a new country anyway,” she added.

According to Weisel, the U.S. and its negotiating partners are committed to making TPP a “living agreement” that will not only provide for additional countries to join over time, but also allow parties to update it to keep pace with a changing global economy.

Weisel suggested it was still unclear whether Japan would be able to resolve its “difficult domestic debate” over whether to join TPP. “They have to sort out internally what their priorities are and whether or not they can go forward,” she said. “And they seem to have a plan, but we’ll wait to see how successful they are.”

Asked about Japan’s possible entry at a July 3 stakeholder briefing, Singapore’s chief negotiator noted that Japan has not made up its mind on whether it wants to join TPP, and signaled that an initial agreement with the current group plus Canada and Mexico is the most likely outcome, one source said.

A private-sector source here speculated that Japan may have missed its “window of opportunity” to join the TPP talks in the first tranche when Canada and Mexico were invited to join at last month’s G-20 meeting.

This source pointed out that this could be a preferable outcome for the Obama administration, as it would not have to deal with difficult political issues such as opposition to Japan’s entry by U.S. auto companies and their congressional supporters, especially during the presidential campaign.

Weisel made clear that the stated goal of TPP members is to eventually expand the agreement to include all 21 countries that are members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, including China. She said this would occur in a step by step process involving “successive tranches of negotiations.”

Asked whether China would ultimately join TPP, Weisel largely echoed comments in May by USTR Ron Kirk that this decision is up to China (TPP Special Report, May 18). “And so the question is, does China want to join and, if so, is it prepared to meet the standards of the agreement. And that’s not something for any of the current members to decide, that’s something for China to decide,” she said.

At the same time, she noted China is following the development of TPP, and that the U.S. and China have exchanged information to keep each other informed of the efforts each one is pursuing in the Asia-Pacific region. But she said China at the moment is focused on other regional trade negotiations, including one with Japan and South Korea.

She gave a similar assessment regarding South Korea, which has not yet expressed an interest in joining TPP. “So far [South Korea] seems very focused on other trade negotiations but has an eye on what’s going on in TPP,” she said.

She argued that it is not the intent of the TPP to threaten China’s interests in the region. “We are all acutely aware of the fact that it would not be a helpful thing to have this perceived as some kind of threat to China or an agreement that was intended to exclude China or somehow encircle the region and cut China out,” she said. “That’s not the intent.”

This article was reprinted with permission by Inside Washington Publishers