Happy lunar new year to everyone!
2014, the year of horse has just begun with a “bang” – or more like smoke in the air that just might mean that there will be some sort and form of “bang-ing” some time soon.
Public report is that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (“MOTIE”) announced that its negotiators will visit 6 countries currently parties to the Trans Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) negotiations in February, including Canada (here – sorry, only in Korean and was unable to find an English report yet). According to various public reports, the purpose of the visit will be to discuss TPP – which at this stage of the game, would likely involve Koreans testing-the-water and trying to garner Canadian support for the Korean entry in the TPP negotiations.
So, here we have the Koreans, finally (appears to be) coming to the table with full force in the TPP. The change of tone started late 2013. Even in APEC in September, where the Koreans were widely speculated to announce formal intention to join the TPP, the President Park came short and only reiterated the previous message that Korea is open to the idea of TPP (which, many also speculated, was due to absence of the President Obama, which in turn made China the big elephant in the room, who is again speculated to be opposed to the idea of Korea joining the TPP). The focus then shifted to making bilateral treaties with individual TPP members, perhaps (IMHO, that is) to make the TPP-pill easier to swallow in terms of politics (remember the candle-light demonstrations against the KORUS FTA?).
What has happened after the shift in gear was shocking, at least for those of us in Canada – Korea signed a deal in December with Australia (here), which was stalled, just like Korea-Canada FTA, for a number of years. In the field of international treaty making, which moves at a glacial pace, the news was a clear signal that Korea was dead serious about joining the TPP and signing FTAs with the TPP members. Of course, for us Canadians, this also meant that the Korea-Canada FTA could also be signed any day now.
So what propelled this sudden change of tone of Korea, from lukewarm interest in as late as September 2013 in APEC, to the full swing mode now? May be there has never been a shortage of interest in joining the TPP, but the careful approach was just for public display in order not to create problems with China. After all, Korea is in the process of negotiating FTAs with China too, bilaterally (Korea-China FTA) as well as multilaterally (RCEP and Korea-Japan-China trilateral FTA); and also China appears to be the only voice that North Korea listens to.
My two-cents is that, in addition to all other reasons, the US politics of trade promotion authority (“TPA”) might have had some influence as well. The TPA is essentially a permission given by the legislature to the administration to go out and sign treaties with other countries. The Obama administration is increasingly having a trouble with obtaining a TPA from the law makers, which means that the TPP might – just might – not be signed by April this year (before the US election begins), and that Korea may be, after all, able to have a meaningful negotiations before the TPP is signed. In other words, Korea might see this current time as a unique time-window, which could allow Korea to participate and shape the TPP.