We are entering yet another phase in the ongoing march of globalisation in the 21st Century. The Trans-Pacific Agreement (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are the most ambitious and aggressive multilateral free trade agreements to have been secretly negotiated for seven years since the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995. The parties to the TPP include Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei, the original signatories, as well as, prior to Trump’s intervention, the United States (US), Canada, Mexico, Australia, Peru, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam. The TTIP is an arrangement between the US and the European Union (EU). The following discussion will focus primarily on the TPP, which involves several developing countries in the Asia-Pacific.
The countries that have been parties to the TPP are responsible for more than 60% of the world’s economy. Geopolitically, the motivations behind the deals are not necessarily about economic growth. For the US, the TPP, which excludes China and India, was more about building a strong foundation for its influence in the Asia-Pacific. The negotiations around the agreements had been kept secret until 2013, when WikiLeaks released one out of four chapters of the TPP. The agreements are controversial not just because the details have been kept secret from citizens for a decade, but also because substantive clauses in the agreements are serious threats to fundamental human rights.
Activists protesting the deals are in agreement about the possible extraordinarily harmful consequences if our politicians do not allow the arrangements to be properly scrutinised by democratic processes. We have heard calls to veto the signing of the TPP by their respective countries from anti-TPP activists around the world. Activists have organised rallies, lobbied their political representatives, are boycotting products of multinational companies, and other actions, some of which are, unfortunately, tainted with xenophobic and racist assumptions.
Race issues are difficult to discuss in the context of the “Progressive Left”, but these discussions need to be had. With movements such as Occupy Wall Street and now, the anti-TPP protests, it is necessary to ask how the messages and goals of these campaigns can be inclusive in order to properly agitate for systematic change. Campaigns that focus primarily on how the agreements will affect local jobs and, to universalise their argument, criticise sub-standard human rights practices in other places only go so far, and will ultimate be pernicious for people living in developing countries.
Flashback: the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis and Seattle
My eyes were forced open to the harmful effects of free trade agreements while growing up in Indonesia during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. My mother was the only breadwinner of our family: she was self-employed and ran a catering service for labourers and low-level professionals who worked for small export-import companies. From late 1996, though, gradually those workers lost their jobs, with flow-on consequences for my mother’s business. I, an MTV worshipper of the 90s, was forced to make a decision between studying painfully hard to get to university on scholarships, or risking my future by committing the crime of convenient marriage. Around me, protests grew stronger as the Indonesian economy crashed, along with those of other countries in the region. A 31 year-rule dictatorship was brought down in Indonesia, but the crisis also left several Asian countries falling into debt to the WTO.
The battle of Seattle occurred in 1999 – assorted anti-globalisation activists demonstrated outside the building where the third WTO Ministerial Meeting had failed to include developing countries in the process of reaching its collective agriculture agreements. I curiously observed the protests, the protestors and what they were protesting through the window of television from Indonesia. I felt so delighted that those from a land far away were so passionate at voicing the sufferings my people had been through since the financial crisis. Those protesters risked their lives at the hand of riot police. I realised there was a world so interconnected, so close, even though I did not know it really existed.
But something was bothering me. The economic gap between the Developed World and the Developing World not only shows the deep footprints of colonialism but also secondary problems that come from activism in anti-capitalist movements: xenophobia and white saviours. Similar to what we are now seeing in response to the TPP, the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle focused their criticisms on the poor labour standards and environmental protections in developing countries. The protestors argued for the US to punish other countries that failed to comply with labour rights and environment protection terms in trade agreements. Sanctions in any context ultimately disadvantage those at the bottom, and these short-sighted demands would harm the very people these protests sought to “protect”. Decolonising activism in this context would have involved partnerships, not paternalism: working together with grassroots activists in developing countries, supporting their fights to improve their workers’ bargaining power, along with local environmental campaigns, improving outcomes for everyone.