Free Trade, Unfree Nations

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There are many reasons to be concerned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Some oppose the agreement for its lax labor and environmental standards, some for the investor-state dispute mechanism and some due to the ignominious outcome of past free trade pacts on American jobs. For me, it was much simpler. I could oppose the TPP before the text and substance was even known, based on the list of countries included in the negotiations. Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore are notoriously undemocratic regimes and the United States should not be rewarding them with upgraded trade ties.

President Obama says the TPP “reflects America’s values,” and one wonders what exactly those values could be. Perhaps the one-party dictatorship in Vietnam? The brutal sultanate in Brunei? Although elections are held in Malaysia and Singapore, they can hardly be classified as free and fair. Censorship is rife, while the Malaysian opposition leader sits in jail on the charge of sodomy. Singapore infamously restricts freedom of expression, individual rights having been excluded from the government’s projection of modernity.

Proponents of the TPP throw around terms like “rules-based” and claim that the best way to change conditions in these countries is to bring them into the economic fold. In practice, instead of insisting on genuine progress, the U.S. has shamefully decided to just water down the rules. The State Department recently upgraded Malaysia’s rating in the annual Trafficking in Persons report without any evidence of improvement, allowing Kuala Lumpur to meet the legal standard for trade negotiations. The Obama Administration was roundly criticized for politicizing a previously well-respected human rights report.

I do not pretend that excluding these four countries from free trade agreements would instantly bring about liberal democracy. Including them, though, would make America complicit in the continuance of their regimes. Remember Bill Clinton’s argument that normalizing trade relations with China would set them on a path toward democracy? Fifteen years later, the Communist Party is more enriched, entrenched and empowered than ever. All the more ironic considering that the TPP is billed as a strategic move to counter Chinese economic influence.

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