US trade agenda trumps fight against human trafficking

The US State Department has given Malaysia a better grade on fighting human trafficking. That decision has more to do with the president’s trade agenda than human rights, says DW’s Spencer Kimball.

The timing is suspicious.

In June, the United States Congress prohibited President Barack Obama from concluding trade deals with countries that are non-compliant with basic standards on preventing and punishing human trafficking. Malaysia was one of the worst offenders – until the State Department released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report on Monday.

The Southeast Asian nation has been upgraded from the worst ranking possible to a State Department “watch list.” Reuters broke the news of Malaysia’s pending change in status in early July. In response, 178 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing the upgrade as unwarranted based on Malaysia’s human rights record. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch agree that Malaysia has not made enough of an improvement to deserve an upgrade.

So why did the State Department give Malaysia a better grade? The Obama administration would simply argue that Kuala Lumpur has made modest improvements. But the upgrade also conveniently allows the president to secure Malaysia’s place in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the cornerstone of his trade agenda. The TPP includes 12 nations and will cover 40 percent of the global economy.

President Obama recently won fast-track authority to finish negotiating the deal. But he had to fight a bitter battle with members of his own party. American progressives have argued that the TPP will jeopardize American jobs and weaken environmental and labor standards.

Why would the White House allow its trade agenda to take another public bruising with a key country being forced out of the deal over its record on human trafficking?

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Little headway on Trans-Pacific free trade deal

(By Deutsche Welle) During his trip to Asia, US President Obama proved unable to resolve differences with Japan over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now back in Washington, the president faces growing opposition to the ambitious trade deal.

It’s one of the most ambitious free trade agreements ever undertaken, according to Peter Petri, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP) would deepen integration among 12 economies in the Americas and Asia, covering 40 percent of the world’s economic output and 26 percent of its total trade.

The free trade negotiations currently include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States.

“The TPP is part of a big long-term strategy that Obama has inaugurated and has been a center piece of his trade policy as well as in some ways his geopolitical reorientation of American policies toward Asia,” Petri told DW.

“It’s partly a rebalancing of the military forces that the United States has around the world, but especially it’s an effort to re-orient the American economy to the fastest-growing markets of the 21st century,” he added.

Congressional opposition

But Washington’s pivot toward Asia has proven difficult to manage. Returning from his Asia tour, President Obama proved unable to resolve differences with Japan over tariff barriers in the agriculture and automotive industries. The disagreement between the TPP’s two heavyweights is one of the key factors that have delayed the negotiations. A deal was supposed to have been reached last December.

As Obama settles back into Washington, he faces stiff domestic opposition to the free trade deal from his own party. In the House of Representatives, 151 Democrats oppose renewing the so-called fast-track authority. Under fast-track rules, Congress can vote up or down on a draft deal submitted by the president, but cannot add amendments to the draft. The idea is to expedite the passage of complex trade agreements.

“Politics in the United States has really slowed down, meaning that the president did not get trade promotion authority which is a kind of negotiating tool that would have made it possible for him to conclude the deal quickly,” Petri said. “Because he doesn’t have that, the Japanese are reluctant to make the very tough political concessions that they have to make in the end for the deal to happen.”

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