Friday, June 22, 2012

Gauging US Thoughts on Myanmar and the TPP

This week I attended the annual Washington Doorknock of the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce (APCAC).   This is an opportunity for American Chambers of Commerce in Asia to hear from the Obama administration and the US Congress about their thoughts and opinions on Asia.   There were a few items that impact the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC):

First, State and Treasury department officials indicated that the official suspension of US Burma sanctions against the Myanmar regime will take place soon, and no later than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia on July 12-13The suspension had been announced in May during a visit by the Myanmar foreign minister to Washington, but the formal suspension, in the form of a “general license” to do business with Myanmar, has not yet been issued by the Treasury department, which administers the Burma sanctions. 

The suspension will likely cover all of the issues discussed in my previous blog entry, with the additional likelihood that companies investing in Myanmar will have to file a periodic report on corporate social responsibility efforts.  The suspension will not likely result in a lifting of the ban on imports from Myanmar, as the U.S. Congress will likely pass an extension of the ban and other sanctions for an additional year (although President Obama’s ability to waive the sanctions will also continue).  The suspension comes as the US-ASEAN  Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce plans two separate business missions to Yangon and Naypyidaw in July and August (I am going in the August mission).

Second, thoughts on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) were mixed.  Most thought it would not be practical for the TPP to be completed this year although progress had been noted.  Some (mostly Republicans) thought that without Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a statutory delegation of authority by the Congress to the President along with expedited consideration and voting procedures for Congress, a TPP result would be difficult to achieve.  Along with the long-stalled WTO Doha Roud, the TPP is the first major trade agreement the US has attempted to negotiate without TPA (or its predecessor Fast-Track) since the 1970’s, and trading partners will be reluctant to negotiate and conclude deals if they know that Congress will later rewrite the agreement during the consideration process.  In addition, TPA traditionally comes with formal notice and consultation processes to be followed by the Administration, which USTR has been following without statutory authority for TPP anyway.  Nevertheless, there were some complaints that without the TPA stipulations, USTR’s consultation process with Congress has been less satisfactory than its outreach efforts to other stakeholders such as non-governmental organizations. 

There was concern about how TPP could be linked up with US efforts to engage ASEAN more.  Major ASEAN members such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are not in the TPP talks, and may not be ready to join for the foreseeable future due to their domestic political concerns.  One State official opined that perhaps a “half-way house” for these ASEAN members could be created so that ASEAN could have some linkages with the TPP; other officials thought that economic development in these ASEAN members would be better served by their joining the TPP talks in full, noting that Thailand had had its opportunity for a bilateral FTA with the US in the last decade and would already be in the TPP talks now if it had entered into an FTA.

Third, this was an opportunity to meet several US officials who have had a major impact on ASEAN, including Senator Daniel K. Inouye, the US Senate president pro tem, whom I have long admired as an Asia-Pacific American political pioneer:

During the meeting, he remembered his last visit to Yangon in 1966, making him one of the first US legislators to visit Myanmar/Burma.  Another notable legislator is Rep. Xavier Becerra, who had been offered the USTR position by President Obama.  USTR Ron Kirk has done an excellent job, but seeing Rep. Becerra in action during a panel makes me wonder what could have been achieved with him at USTR.