TOKYO - President Obama's trade talks with Japan, part of his bargaining for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) "free trade" pact, drew opposition on both sides of the Pacific as the president landed in Tokyo on April 23 for talks with Premier Shinzo Abe. The president then visited South Korea, which is also part of the TPP talks.
In the U.S., meanwhile, unions and their allies blasted the secrecy of those talks and the pact's corporate giveaways in letters and op-eds.
Twitter carried pictures of protesting Asian workers and news reports said the Obama-Abe bargaining in Japan would probably not result in approval of the trade pact.
The Malaysian government, one of the other 12 nations in the TPP talks, is having second thoughts, other reports noted.
President Obama has said the TPP is connected to a "pivot" on foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific. The traditional focus has been on Europe and Latin America.
The TPP, which covers far more than trade - everything from intellectual property to financial deregulation - is a key part of that new strategy. It is seen by unions and many progressives, however, as a giveaway to corporations because it lacks clauses that would protect or guarantee the rights of workers in the countries involved.
Another complaint has been that big business has had plenty of access to policymakers in Washington but that for workers and their unions the TPP negotiations have been a closed-door affair. U.S. "workers know all too well the high price of unfair trade. But while the 20-year-old NAFTA deal is the focus of much of the blame, it is hardly the only reason why millions of U.S. middle-class jobs have evaporated in recent years," Teamsters President James Hoffa said in a recent op-ed.
Hoffa noted the U.S.-Korea free trade pact just passed its two-year anniversary. Backers claimed it would create 70,000 U.S. jobs by that anniversary. Instead, U.S. net exports to Korea have declined by $518 million, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has risen by 49 percent, and "overall, more than 40,000 Americans are now out of work due to the agreement," according to Hoffa.
That Korea pact "doesn't get the headlines" of NAFTA or the TPP, Hoffa added. "But those losses across the country are real. It is the most recent example of the kind of damage trade deals that don't take workers' interests into consideration can do to America.
"It is because of numbers like these that the Teamsters (and other unions) are wary of future trade deals. No one is against trade per se; we're just against unfair trade. Given the public is being kept in the dark when it comes to the TPP, that's a big reason for concern. If it is such a good deal, as supporters claim, why not release the text so everyone can take a look? What's the big secret?" Hoffa asked.
In Asia, the South China Morning Post reported opposition to the TPP, while Japan's Kyodo News quoted the Japanese economy minister as saying his country still intends to protect agriculture and its auto firms against U.S. goods, meaning there will be no TPP pact while Obama is there. Kyodo also reported the Malaysian government's second thoughts.
"In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling coalition reversed their support for the pact last year," Kyodo reported. Domestic Malaysian businesses, particularly state-owned enterprises - whom the TPP does not regulate despite their subsidies and tax breaks - prompted the reconsideration, the story added.
President Obama also faces opposition in the U.S. to the fast-track trade promotion authority he needs to win final approval for the TPP. Fast-track would let the president shepherd TPP through the approval process without changes, requiring just one up-or-down vote in both the House and the Senate. This would prevent lawmakers who want to insert clauses to protect workers rights, for example, from doing so.
More than three-fourths of the House Democratic Caucus are on record against fast-track, as are 28 Republicans. Influential Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., pronounced fast-track "dead" in an April 21 interview with reporters.
"That is no way to handle a deal that could lead to thousands of hard-working Americans getting a pink slip," said Hoffa. "When the U.S. negotiates a trade agreement, every provision should benefit working families, not big corporations. But that has not been happening. It didn't happen with NAFTA, it isn't happening with" the Korea pact "and it won't happen with TPP. Numbers don't lie. Workers are losing under these trade deals.
Photo: President Obama and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Carolyn Kaster/AP