On Friday, the United States Senate voted 62-37 to provide President Barack Obama the power to “fast-track” his Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) deal while he has already begun asserting United Nations international maritime law in the South China Sea. Orrin Hatch, co-author of the bill and Senate Finance Committee chairman, has indicated that this is “likely the most important bill we’ll pass this year.” Some have already begun comparing the changes the TPA will make to international trade to those that the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” made to the healthcare industry, prompting its new informal title, “Obamatrade.” Conservative Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives alike are hoping to challenge the bill passed by the Senate when they reconvene in June, but the leaders of the House feel that they will be able to pass the bill quickly.
The U.S. Senate, after much deliberation, passed the TPA but Obama’s attention is already focused on U.N. maritime law in the South China Sea. The TPA and Obama’s interest in increasing U.S. presence in the area are linked to China’s continued usurpation of disputed land including reefs and islands in and around the Spratlys. According to recent reports, through increasing the number of aircraft and ships in this area, not only will trade routes be more secure but also the U.S. will be able to defend these nations of questionable sovereignty from China. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will support this action.
The U.S. has not actually ratified the UNCLOS but now is as good of time as any to sign the treaty. Even if the U.S. decides not to ratify UNCLOS, Ankit Panda from The Diplomat explains, “U.S. policy and treatment of the maritime commons understands the U.N. treaty as a pillar of customary international law.” So, while it is possible to simply treat UNCLOS as accepted maritime law, with all the concern of trade growth provided under TPA, it may behoove this presidency to sign the treaty prior to their January 2017 departure from office.
The TPA involves 12 different nations including Japan and Australia. The economies of the nations involved comprise 40 percent of the global economy. The TPA is quite possibly the largest trade deal since the North American Trade Agreement was passed in 1994. The enormity of the deal ensures that there will be critics as well as supporters. Some criticisms include whether American farmers will be able perform at par in foreign markets where costs may be significantly lower. Individuals like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders contends that this may be a continuation of troubled free trade policy that has been the cause of industrial recession in states like Ohio. However, it may be difficult to argue against the 150 provisions that enhance U.S. trade priorities included in the bill such as protecting human rights, strengthening labor laws, and promoting environmental measures.
What the U.S. Senate demonstrated in passing the bill 62-38, is their support for the trade deal that Obama may already be preparing for in the South China Sea through his assertion of U.S. presence within U.N. maritime law. Mike Froman, a U.S. trade representative, has said, “[t]he Senate’s strong bipartisan vote on Trade Promotion Authority is a powerful statement to the rest of the world that the United States speaks with one voice on the importance of trade.”
By Joel Wickwire
The Diplomat – How the US Senate Can Help Stabilize the South China Sea
Financial Times – US Senate backs ‘fast-track’ trade push
Reuters – Senate advances fast-track trade bill sought by Obama
Yahoo! News – US Senate approves fast-track trade authority for Obama
Image provided by sookie‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons Flickr License
Image provided by Official U.S. Navy Page‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons Flickr License