As the Doha Round of global trade talks nears its 12th year with no end in sight, the negotiations have all but failed. Frustrated with Doha’s stagnation and eager to expand trade and secure alliances, the United States has signed a series of bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs), culminating in last year’s pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. These deals have been generally favorable to the United States; the agreement with South Korea is expected to increase trade between the two countries by billions of dollars and create tens of thousands of jobs for each.
Despite these results, the bilateral approach doesn’t offer much promise. The passage of last year’s deals ended a five-year standoff between, on the one side, most Republicans in the House of Representatives and pro-trade advocates in the business community and, on the other, House Democrats, most unions, and U.S. car producers, which fought particularly hard against the deal with South Korea due to long-standing restrictions against U.S. car sales there. After a difficult process of lobbying, wrangling, and compromise, the Obama administration has little stomach left to attempt another bilateral deal.
To move its trade agenda forward, the White House has instead embraced a measure between the global Doha Round and the bilateral FTAs: a plurilateral process centered on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Currently being negotiated by Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam, the TPP will represent one of the world’s most expansive trade agreements. And if Canada, Mexico, and especially Japan, all of which expressed interest in joining the negotiations last November, also sign the agreement, the TPP will add billions to the U.S. economy and solidify Washington’s political, financial, and military commitment to the Pacific for decades to come. Given the potential windfall, the Obama administration believes that the TPP has a better chance of overcoming domestic opposition than would a Doha agreement or new bilateral deals.