By Christine Ahn
Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus
The struggle for food sovereignty in the Pacific got a major boost last December when Billy Kenoi, mayor of Hawai’i’s Big Island, signed a law that prevents farmers from growing any new genetically engineered crops (with the exception of papaya). This follows a successful push on Kauai, at the other end of the islands, to force large growers to disclose the pesticides they use and which genetically engineered crops they are growing.
This is a major step in the battle for more ecologically sustainable agriculture in Hawai’i, which has suffered for over a century under the heavy weight of U.S. corporate and military domination.
Yet like other local, state, and national regulations intended to protect the public and the environment, these anti-GMO laws can be swiftly overturned if President Obama signs the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the world’s most ambitious and far reaching free trade agreement yet. On January 9, the U.S. Congress introduced “fast-track” legislation allowing the Obama administration to sign the TPP without undergoing public debate. Fast-track authority would grant the White House the power to speed up negotiations, while giving Congress only 90 days to review the TPP before voting.
The TPP spans 12 countries — including the United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam — comprising 40 percent of the world’s economy. Like nearly all trade agreements signed since NAFTA, the TPP is almost to certain to allow multinational corporations from anywhere in the bloc to sue governments in secret courts to overturn national or local regulations, such as Hawai’i’s recent GMO laws, that could limit their profits. So it’s not just Hawai’i’s food sovereignty that’s at risk.
“This is not mainly about trade,” explains Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “It is a corporate Trojan horse. The agreement has 29 chapters, and only five of them have to do with trade.” More than 600 corporate lobbyists representing multinationals like Monsanto, Cargill, and Wal-Mart have had unfettered access to shape the secret agreement, while Congress and the public have only seen a few leaked chapters.
But the TPP is even more than a corporate Trojan horse. It’s a core part of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific Pivot, which is centrally about containing China.
A New Cold War?
Ahead of the fall 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) meeting in Hawaii, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a plan to transfer U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic resources from the Middle East to the Pacific, in what she called “America’s New Pacific Century.” Describing the pivot in militaristic terms as “forward-deployed diplomacy,” Clinton hailed the TPP as a “benchmark for future agreements” leading to “a free trade area of the Asia- Pacific.”
Yet the TPP excludes China, which has become the second largest economy in the world and is poised to outpace the U.S. economy in a matter of years — a fact that is none too pleasing to U.S. elites accustomed to unrivaled hegemony.
Like the United States, the future of China’s economic growth lies in the Asia-Pacific region, which by all indicators will be the center of economic activity in the 21stcentury. By 2015, according to a paper from the conservative Foreign Policy Research Institute, “East Asian countries are expected to surpass NAFTA and the euro zone to become the world’s largest trading bloc. Market opportunities will only increase as the region swells by an additional 175 million people by 2030.”
Enter the TPP. By increasing U.S. market access and influence with China’s neighbors, Washington is hoping to deepen its economic engagement with the TPP countries while diminishing their economic integration with China.
Obama’s “Pacific Pivot” also seeks to contain China militarily. By 2020, 60 percent of U.S. naval capacity will be based in the Asia-Pacific, where 320,000 U.S. troops are already stationed. The realignment will entail rebuilding and refurbishing former U.S. facilities in the Philippines, placing 2,500 marines in Australia, transferring 8,000 marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam and Hawai’i, and building new installations like the one on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. Meanwhile, the U.S. military regularly stages massive joint military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with its key allies — and China’s neighbors — Japan and South Korea. It has been regularly conducting Cobra Gold exercises with Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Myanmar.
Official Washington seems to believe that these are necessary precautions. According to the RAND Corporation, for example, 90 percent of U.S. bases in the region are “under threat” from Chinese ballistic missiles because they are within 1,080 nautical miles of China. But who is threatening whom? The Chinese have precisely zero bases in the Asia-Pacific outside of their own borders.
Some U.S. analysts insist that a more robust U.S. military presence is necessary to curb China’s ambitious territorial claims in the region. Without a doubt, China has recently taken a more aggressive stance in regional territorial disputes over dwindling natural resources, angering many of its neighbors. But by turning to the United States as a check against China, less powerful nations invite a bargain with the devil as Washington will advance its own strategic interests. And by getting itself involved, Washington risks encouraging China’s rivals to behave more provocatively, as well as angering China itself. According to Mel Gurtov, “While accepting that the United States is a Pacific power, Chinese authorities now resist the notion that the United States has some special claim to predominance in Asia and the western Pacific.”
A One-Two Punch
“The hidden hand of the market,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously wrote in the 1990s, “will never work without a hidden fist.” The Asia-Pacific Pivot, a one-two neoliberal-militaristic punch, packs both.
Of all people in the world, Hawaiians know this especially well. Once a sovereign nation, Hawai’i was the starting point for America’s century of imperialism and conquest in the Pacific. Most people don’t know this critical history, but what fueled the overthrow of Hawai’i’s monarchy was trade. During the 1800s, American merchants were profiting handsomely from exporting sugar from Hawai’i to the United States. When faced with new tariffs that the U.S. government imposed to protect the domestic sugar industry in the American South, the exporters orchestrated a coup with the U.S. marines to overthrow the islands’ queen and annex Hawai’i so that Hawaiian sugar would not be subject to tariffs.
With the world facing the pressing issues of global climate change, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, and declining sources of fossil energy, what is now needed more than ever are policies that promote local, sustainable economies that ensure the well-being of their people and protect the ecosystems upon which all of our lives depend.
Local communities seem to get it — new laws like the GMO restrictions recently passed in Hawai’i are a step in that direction. But with multinational elites and the U.S. government pushing undemocratic monstrosities like the Pacific Pivot and the TPP, prospects for a more genuine security appear more distant than ever.