Monday, February 13, 2017




          From his first day in office, when President Trump kept a campaign promise and dumped the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement painstakingly and secretly negotiated by ex-President Barack Obama, he’s been accused of giving China unprecedented license to move into other Asian and South Pacific markets.

          Not so.

          The first thing to understand here is that the TPP contained some of the worst aspects of the long-controversial North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as NAFTA, with very few improvements. The second is that for China to usurp U.S. – and especially California’s – trade in the 12 countries involved, those countries would have to be willing partners.

          The pact was to include Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Peru, Canada and the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei. None of these countries and states wants to be dominated by China and since Trump pulled the U.S. out of TPP, China has made no aggressive trade moves on any of them.

          Which means all or almost all will likely be back at the bargaining table within a year or so aiming to work out a new free trade deal with Trump.

          That’s political reality, even if some Trump critics don’t like to admit it, choosing instead to blast every move he makes just because it’s he making the move.

          Rather than bemoan the trade agreement that isn’t, how about using that failed, putative deal as a starting point for drafting a new one?

          The rejected agreement had some huge flaws, just as NAFTA does. Labor leaders who applauded Trump as he signed the order killing the proposed TPP said some of its provisions figured to send many thousands of jobs out of America – particularly from California. Environmental groups said it bore the potential to contribute to global climate change by placing factories in countries with flimsy air and water quality regulation.

          But its worst feature was an international tribunal of lawyers from various countries with the power to override some laws of member countries and even to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court.

          This was an outright assault not just on tough state environmental restrictions like California’s, but also on national sovereignty. Supporters of the TPP denied this, claiming such usurpation of powers would never happen.

          But just that threat was realized early in NAFTA’s history with the overturning of some U.S. dolphin-safe regulations for canned tuna because they impeded free trade. In short, because some Mexican fishermen were not careful to avoid catching dolphins in their nets in waters off Southern California, federal rules designed to spare an intelligent species died at the hands of foreign lawyers more interested in money than mercy.

Something similar almost happened to California quite directly, also under NAFTA. This case involved a Canadian company called Methanex, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, which made and marketed a gasoline additive called MTBE that could cut smog while boosting octane ratings. But MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) turned out to have noxious odors and taste when it inevitably leached from gasoline station storage tanks into ground water. The additive also sparked cancer fears, although that alleged threat was never proven.

          California, under former Gov. Gray Davis, banned MTBE in the late 1990s. Methanex sued in NAFTA’s tribunal and the case was heard in Washington, D.C., far from affected Californians. The case took several years, and eventually Methanex lost because of MTBE’s health effects. Validating the California ban, the additive has not been used widely in this country since 2005.

          The entire Methanex effort at using NAFTA to override California’s health concerns was a travesty. Yet, the TPP was written to allow similar cases.

          So the TPP was a bad deal on several scores. Which doesn’t mean a better deal can’t be negotiated. Trump touted his supposed deal-making skills incessantly during his campaign last year. Now he has a chance to negotiate a better, safer, cleaner, fairer trade deal with Pacific nations than Obama ever could.      


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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