What Does the Trans-Pacific Partnership Mean for Lawyers?

, The Asian Lawyer


President Barack Obama speaks with Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei
President Barack Obama speaks with Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei

One of the casualties of the U.S. government’s two-week shutdown was President Barack Obama’s long-planned trip earlier this month to participate in the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali, Indonesia.

The president’s cancellation was a potential setback to his efforts to move ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that is a key part of his so-called pivot toward Asia. The White House has said it would like to see a final deal on the table by the end of the year or early 2014—a very aggressive timetable for an agreement that would create a free trade zone encompassing a third of the world’s economy.

The TPP is not without controversy, and groups like farmers and autoworkers have all raised objections to part or all of the proposed agreement. Unsurprisingly, however, lawyers are not among the groups opposed to the TPP.

“Anything that encourages cross-border economic activity is good for lawyers,” Mori Hamada & Matsumoto Singapore senior of counsel Tony Grundy says.

Negotiations began in 2010, with the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru participating, but buzz around the TPP increased enormously this past spring when Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, came on board. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since made the pact a major part of his economic platform.

Noticeably absent, of course, is China, and many observers, including the Chinese government, perceive a U.S. effort to isolate its biggest geopolitical rival. But China has also recently suggested it was open to eventually joining the TPP itself, and the current potential member states are drafting the agreement with an eye to that possibility, says Steptoe & Johnson Beijing partner Eric Emerson. But, in order to become a member, China would likely need to sign on to provisions guaranteeing it would not favor state-owned enterprises over foreign competitors competing for the same business.

“And I think today they’re just not totally going to be willing to do that,” says Emerson, though he thinks there are signs that China is revising some of its regulatory structures to be more compatible with free trade agreements.

The final contours of the TPP have yet to emerge, as the talks are ongoing and behind closed doors. But Joseph Laroski, a counsel in Washington, D.C., with King & Spalding, says there’s already been an uptick in advisory and lobbying work in anticipation of the agreement. There’ll be more when the actual document becomes available.

“That’s where you can add value [as a lawyer] as to how the agreement works and how you can advance your clients’ interests within the framework of the agreement,” says Laroski.

And that’s even before the TPP is actually adopted by the participating nations.

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