Like a sexual addict, New Zealand has a dark obsession with free trade. The obsession may speak to a larger issue rather than the value of trade per se. That issue may beÂ the pathology of NZ political-economic elites fantasising about trade benefits rather than the real benefits to their constituents.
Â Whatever the case, the number of free trade agreements (FTAs)Â NZ hasÂ negotiated is high for a small democracyÂ (9–bilaterals with the PRC, Australia,Â Malaysia, Thailand,Â Singapore andÂ South Korea, multilaterals withÂ the Transpacific Partnership (P4) with Brunei, Chile and Singapore,Â and with ASEAN/Australia, as well as a regional agreement with the GulfÂ Cooperation Council (GCC) grouping several Arabian peninsularÂ states). It has negotiations underway with India and Hong Kong Â (bilaterally),Â on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), Â and with Australia, the US, Vietnam and Peru on joining the P4 in an expanded TPP. Further FTA negotiations with ASEAN and other partners are ongoing.Â NZ is an ardentÂ champion of the virtues of free (unprotected)Â trade and open commercial borders in international fora such as the WTO.Â In other words, if this were a sex survey, New Zealand isÂ promiscuous in itsÂ approach to free trade.
To further the analogy, the pursuit of free trade under the National governmentÂ is the macroeconomic equivalent ofÂ cruising for sex. It focuses on the immediate satisfaction ofÂ new market penetration and commodity exchange rather than on the potentially negative consequences of the liaison. Phrased politely as foreign market opening and reciprocal investment, the thrust of NZ’s FTAs gives muchÂ lessÂ regard to the “after-entry” (or “morning after”) consequences of sequentially engaging multiple partners with different strategic objectives born ofÂ varying cultural backgrounds, governance, resource bases and historical legacies. There is, in a word, a lack of prophylaxis when it comes to NZ’s approach to free trade.
FTAs are essentially tariff reduction, currency, investment and border control agreements. They are commonly referred to as “market opening” pacts. The focus is on the conditions and terms of entry. Although consensual, oftentimes these are largely determined by the interests ofÂ larger,Â dominant partners, particularly in bilateral agreements.Â But multilateral FTAsÂ are like group sex–there is more room for individual manuever within the general rules of engagement, but the group dynamic may force the weaker partners to submit to advances that they may normally prefer to avoid (to bring things back to the subject, such as on issues like unorganised child or wimin’s labour, or open pit mining in conservation zones).
In either event,Â lessÂ concernÂ Â is placed in the rush to secure new FTAs onÂ the environmental, labor market, gender, immigration, indigenous and security implications of trade opening. These are considered to beÂ secondary consequences that are best dealt with based upon local market conditions.Â It is the terms of the initial engagement that matters, not the morning-afterÂ effects.
This is what makes the indiscriminate New ZealandÂ approach to free tradeÂ all the more alarming. Of Â its new partners, many are authoritarian and most are bigger in size,Â withÂ larger and more variegated economies of scale. The terms of NZ’s engagement with such partners, while legally equal, often leave it in a subordinate position where it is forced to accept practices that are unacceptable or contrary to community standards at home. In fact, if the analogy holds, then many of the NZ’s trade partners should have name suppression, if only becauseof their authoritarianism and systematic abuse of human rights at home.
Nor is NZs penetration of foreign markets pain-free. As Fonterra has learned, after-entry issues in foreign markets such as product quality control are not inconsequential. In fact, as far as the brand is concerned, the after-entry consequences of rapid market opening can often be devastating.
It is not just the brand that can be damaged by the rush to market opening.Â Scholars have already begun to point to the negative consequences for the environment, indigenious groups, and labour rights when FTAs are negotiated without regard to after-entry consequences. I am currently working on a book chapter that highlights the security implications of the above-mentioned expanded TPP, to include its criminal and military-strategic and intelligence flow-on effects.Â
For NZ, the longer termÂ situation is not good. For example, even though NZ has opened its borders to increased aviation and martime-borne tourism, it has not increased the number of MAF or Customs dog-handlers to handle the increased volumes of tourist traffic in places such as Rotorua, Tauranga and Opua (all of the environmental security and drugs searchers have to be driven from Auckland)Â even thoughÂ theÂ volume of imported commercial goods has increased exponentiallyas well. This leaves gaping holes in bio-security as well as in narcotics interdiction in commercial ports of entry (think of an increase ofÂ thousands of containers worth of commercial goods entering NZÂ per year without the ability to scrutinise evenÂ a quarterÂ of them). Nor have Police, Immigration or Customs resources been increased with an eye towards countering organized crime using newly opened trade borders as conduits for a bit of market penetration of their own (note recent reports of Chinese students serving as drug couriers–the PRC is the main source of the precursor chemicals for the manufacture of P). In addition, lax financial regulations and corporate registration laws contribute to making NZ an increasingly attractive destinationÂ Â for money laundering ventures and business fronts originating in Asia. Again, no thought has apprently been given to these types of issues when FTAs are negotiated.Â
In spite of the clear dangers of unprotected free trade, here defined as FTAs without negotiated after-entry provisos, the National government, Labour, and most minor parties believe in the mantra thatÂ the rising tide of free trade raises all economic boats. But, to continue the physical analogy, such an unprotectedÂ surge of free tradeÂ also brings with itÂ potentially unhealthy (some might say deviant) Â after-entry consequencesÂ when it comes to the socio-economic fabric of NZ society. That is why prophylaxis is necessary at the point of negotiations, not later.
John Key and TimÂ Groser may think of themselves as “players” on the world trading scene,Â Â but they may be cruising for commercial love inÂ all the wrongÂ places, at least in terms of their choice of partners and neglect ofÂ morning- afterÂ effects.Â Ill-conceived and lacking inÂ consideration of longer-termÂ impact beyond short-term aggregate growth, such an approachÂ downplaysÂ overall societal welfareÂ in favour of commerical and politicalÂ elite satisfaction. Â That may be exciting for the latter, but like victims of a night on the town gone wrong, it has the potential to leave theÂ NZ political economyÂ battered, brusied, postrate, supine and hopelessÂ in the face of the manipulations of trade partners who seemed nice at first and promised many things, but whose subsequent behaviour proved less noble.
PS: remember, this post is about the potential negative effects of free trade. I realise that the cruising/unprotected sex analogy is a bit over the top, but I could not resist given how postively orgasmic the Key government waxes about free trade (sorry!).
PPS: In Wellington now. Went from 26 degrees and 99% humidity in AK to horizontal drizzle and windÂ at 15 degrees. Not quite dressed for it coming from my SE Asian redoubt. Looking forward to meeting Lew and (hopefully) seeing Anita again.