Although it seems they fell out of fashion after the 1999 WTO protests, trade agreements are still being drafted. Every few months, urged by chambers of commerce and under cover of darkness, legislators ink up new pacts to make it easier for goods to flow and workers to be shed.
Last year, the US Korea Free Trade Agreement was passed. This year, making the Korea deal look piddly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is expanding. The TPP began in 2006 as a hardcore trade agreement between the most trade-dependent countries around the Pacific: Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Brunei joined the negotiations near their conclusion, rounding out the "Pacific 4." Their zeal to reduce tariffs, harmonize standards, and prevent subsidies goes far beyond the ambitions of the World Trade Organization. And now six other countries want in: the U.S., Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam.
In part, the reason that news about trade agreements doesn’t hit front pages is because, er, it’s news about trade agreements. Not the stuff of which editors’ dreams are made. But just because the agreements don’t make the front pages doesn’t mean that people haven’t heard the news. There have been protests against the TPP across the Asia-Pacific region. And at the protests, people are connecting the dots. Like here in Okinawa, Japan.
This month, I visited a rally commemorating the 40th anniversary of this small Pacific island being transferred from the U.S. to Japan. Although Japan runs the prefecture, there’s a rather large U.S. base still here. And there were plenty of people ready to make the connection between an oppressive base and an oppressive trade agreement.
Okina Gaja is a 22-year-old representative from JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, the national association of agricultural cooperatives). He doesn’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership because farmers will be hit to the tune of $20 billion in rice alone [ref in Japanese]. What he really wants is some autonomy in setting the agenda of the island on which he lives. The TPP will prevent that. And the U.S. base will too. “I want the U.S. base out of Okinawa because without that, Okinawan economic independence is impossible,” he said.
If Gaja and the farmers he works with are to win their autonomy, they’ll have to defeat some of Japan’s most powerful interests. The country’s export industry is very excited by the TPP, and it’s worth understanding precisely why their enthusiasm has nothing to do with trade tariffs.
Remember that according to the economics textbooks, free trade agreements reduce the tariffs, the border taxes, that countries charge one another, thus making everyone better off. The tax that Japanese cars pay on entering the U.S. is 2.5 percent. Getting rid of the tariff will do little to address the Japanese car industry’s bigger problem: the exchange rate.
The Yen has appreciated against the dollar by 50 percent in the past five years, which makes Japanese cars that much more expensive in the U.S. But what the TPP does do is make social protections, the kinds that workers like but bosses would rather snip away, less tenable. It’ll be easier under the TPP for companies to challenge environmental and health safeguards, and financial regulations, among many other protections they’ll be able to shrug.
The bone of contention for the U.S. car industry is the thicket of fiddly and difficult domestic regulations that mean most foreign cars are not allowed to be sold here. The TPP will make the economic roads in Japan safer for U.S. companies to sell their SUVs, thus making the actual roads in Japan more dangerous.
Hirofumi Ochiai is a 43-year-old bus driver with the Odakyu company’s Bus Workers Union. He experienced firsthand the force of neoliberal economic policies under the Prime Ministership of Junichiro Koizumi in the early 2000s, when bus subsidies for rural transport networks were cut and workers’ conditions deteriorated. The result: On the most lucrative inter-city bus routes, fares fell. But crashes went up, and services deteriorated on routes that mattered, but weren’t profitable.
So Ochiai came on the march with his fellow drivers to help join the dots.
Ochiai has an incredibly articulate analysis. Deregulation, he says, is always organized by the privileged. Workers always lose, and the rich always win. It’s the same with war. Workers become soldiers while the privileged stay where they are. So, in solidarity with the workers inside the U.S. bases on Okinawa, he’s outside asking that they be freed to fight their fights back home in the U.S., and so that he can fight the same fight here in Japan.