Both the United States and its trade rival, the European Union (EU), have been forced to modify their strategy in South-east Asia in pursuit of their ‘free trade’ and ‘liberalisation’ agenda.
The Malaysia-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is effectively dead; negotiations had gone nowhere after eight rounds of talks. The Malaysian side was afraid of opening up access to government procurement contracts mainly awarded to bumiputera firms. The Americans, under the Obama administration, were worried that free trade would result in an influx of cheap goods into their country while American jobs are lost to low-wage countries.
We should be saying “rest in peace” to the FTA – but unfortunately, there’s no rest for the greedy. Enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as the US modifies its ‘free trade’ strategy. The US is now involved in negotiations with Australia, Brunei, New Zealand, Vietnam, Chile, Singapore and Peru under the TPP banner. The Americans want the TPP to grow into a regional FTA covering the 21 Apec countries. The first round of TPP talks was held in March in Australia.
Malaysia, through its ministry of international trade and industry (Miti), is interested in “exploring” the TPP but the same concerns remain: it would involve prising opening the services sector and government procurement.
Similarly, the Asean-EU FTA is all but dead. The EU shelved FTA talks with Asean after it found that conditions were “not conducive”.
But like the US, the EU has not been idle as they eye the huge South-east Asian market. Desperate to pursue its ‘free trade” agenda and prise open the Asean market, the EU is now negotiating bilateral FTAs with individual Asean nations. (The same old divide-and-rule strategy of the colonials.) Negotiations for a Malaysia-EU FTA began in March with a second round scheduled for June.
The Malaysian government should tread very cautiously and realise the full implications of what it is getting the country into with all these so-called ‘free trade’ talks. An analogy would be the English Premier League: the playing field may be “level” and the same rules apply to all. But it is the clubs with the most money that dominate the league year in and year out and seize the greatest prizes (and draw in the most television revenue) while the poorer clubs lose their best young players and coaches.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian public is kept in the dark about what’s going on. Why aren’t the implications of these trade talks regularly highlighted and debated in the media? What would they mean for small- and medium-scale businesses in Malaysia? What would they mean for farmers and workers? Is this part of a larger scheme to extend the neo-liberal agenda that favours Big Business throughout the Asean region?
We are kept in the dark.