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From TPP to RCEP: People Always on the Losing End

The untimely demise of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) has definitely tipped the scales in favor of China and its free trade counterpart: the lesser known Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The past few months since the TPP’s apparent decline has seen RCEP negotiations on the fastrack. In fact, the 16th round of negotiations in Indonesia last Dec 7-9 signaled the conclusion of a second chapter on SMEs following a prior agreement on the first chapter on economic and technical cooperation. While trade ministers claim that RCEP is different (ergo better) than the TPP, a careful analysis of both agreements would reveal that the people’s interests were never in the agenda in the first place.

Not on the table? Then you’re on the menu

Like other 21st century free trade and investment agreements (FTAs), negotiations surrounding RCEP and TPP have been extremely secretive with no official negotiating texts ever released for public scrutiny. Opponents of these FTAs have relied solely on leaked texts that reveal why negotiators opt to keep negotiations out of the public eye – precisely because the public won’t like it.

This unavoidably raises the questions of why governments involved in these trade talks continue to negotiate on behalf of their people when the people’s interests were never their priority to begin with. Instead of allowing civil society and people’s organizations to look at the text and be in a better position to defend their rights, negotiators rely on an army of corporate lobbyists and lawyers allowing them to sit in the front row of negotiations and provide technical assistance to ‘scrub’ the text from loopholes and turnarounds that can potentially threaten investor profits. Naturally, and same as what leaked RCEP texts on investment and intellectual property rights reveal, agreements would revolve around corporate interests and how to protect them.

Beyond investment protection

The leaked RCEP text on investment shows virtually the same provisions enshrined in the TPP – both agreements will make use of the infamous Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). The ISDS is an international investment court run by corporations themselves that gives them space to sue governments for policies or regulations that threaten their profits. This puts RCEP governments, especially weaker member states, hostage to the whims of corporations as they can easily challenge national laws that aim to protect public welfare. Recent examples of cases filed through ISDS mechanisms show that corporations can challenge and even reverse government decisions to raise the national minimum wage or implement free land distribution.

In 2015, a corporate a corporate court ordered the government of Zimbabwe to return thousands of hectares of land it freely distributed to indigenous farmers back to the German landlord. In addition, the government was also ordered to pay $65M as compensation for the “loss of value” caused by the “illegal occupancy” of local peasants.

In Egypt, the French company Veolia filed a lawsuit against the government of Egypt for raising the national minimum wage and now asks $110M in compensation due to supposed ‘losses’ in profits. These examples show how provisions on investments are increasingly becoming less about protection, and more about attacks that aim to reverse the people’s gains for salary increases, and genuine agrarian reform.

The leaked chapter on intellectual property rights shows provisions that are even worse than the TPP. RCEP aims to extend monopoly rights of corporations over medicines, and seeds by prolonging patent exclusivity beyond existing standards. Once enforced, RCEP will inevitably increase prices for cheap, life-saving drugs while at the same time restricting farmers access to patented seeds.

Investment and militarization: Partners in crime

An hour away from the venue of the 16th round of RCEP talks in Tangerang, Banten Province, Indonesia is a small peasant community in Rumpin that has been struggling against land eviction for 10 years now. Aside from relying on rice and crop production, their soils are also rich in ‘red sand’ or Bauxite – a mineral which is commonly used for aluminum production.  Sinarmas, one of the biggest corporations in Indonesia, have reclaimed thousands of hectares of land over the years and used it for real estate ‘development’, and Bauxite extraction.

At the same time, a military base near the village continues to harass and intimidate community leaders in the aim of crushing resistance against their eviction from their lands. Existing FTAs such as the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA) allows the use of so-called ‘investment defense forces’ in the form of military and paramilitary forces to protect investor interests especially in cases such as that in the unheard community of Rumpin. This is why we can’t talk about investments without talking about militarization. Once enforced, RCEP will only give further license to big corporations aided by military forces to exploit the rich and fertile lands of Rumpin and various other communities across Asia Pacific.

The fall of TPP and how to defeat RCEP

Defeating destructive and equally secretive mega trade deals such as the RCEP is a challenge to people’s organizations worldwide. But as much as this is true, this would not be the first time that mega-FTAs were defeated by the people themselves.

Some would say that the US elections and Donald Trump’s unprecedented victory led to the defeat of the TPP, but let’s not give Trump too much credit. The TPP was put to rest not because an individual like Trump simply decided not to support it. It was the strong people’s resistance and their ability to expose the trade deal for what it really is, and raise the issue as a matter of national interest so much so that campaigning politicians would not even dare to support it for fear of losing votes. Indeed, mass actions and strong people’s movements have always been the decisive force in bringing down destructive FTAs in the past. And this also holds true for RCEP.

Mark Moreno Pascual (@makoypascual) is coordinator of the People Over Profit Network – a global campaign movement of NGOs and social movements across the globe against FTAs and corporate plunder. He is also programme officer for the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) .

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Mark Moreno Pascual (@makoypascual) currently works as Communications Officer for IBON International – a southern International NGO working for peoples rights and democracy. Before that, he spent some years doing research and advocacy with the progressive youth movement in the Philippines campaigning against tuition fee increases and for students rights and welfare.

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