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Maine Legislative Panel Examines Pacific Trade Pact
06/15/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Stakeholders in a small legislative hearing room took up an issue that is dominating headlines a world away as an international trade association weighs the potential entry of China into its membership. The Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission is considering how the TransPacific Partnership might affect business in maine.

It's a long way from Augusta to Beijing. But a panel of stakeholders on the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission is watching the developments surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a nine-member organization created in 2006 that includes Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. The group is working toward strengthening regional relations, job development and creation of a free-trade area. One country noticeably absent from the list of members is China, but that may be about to change.

"Two weeks ago the U.S. Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk said he looks forward to the day when China can join the TPPA," said Professor Robert Stumberg, of Georgetown University Law Center. "It's part of the roadmap to coming up with a bigger trading bloc that is not the World Trade Organization."

Professor Stumberg is a recognized expert on U.S. and international trade law. During a State House meeting, he told Commission members that while the United States tries to create a regulatory framework to advance free trade, the process in China is more complicated. There, trade policies are integrated with military policies and provincial governments. And Stumberg said that gives Chinese companies an automatic advantage over their U.S. counterparts. Unlike many other countries, the United States maintains a public dialogue on trade policy at the national, regional and state levels. Stumberg said that is one of the reasons why countries such as China, will take an interest in the biennial assessment of trade policy that is currently being prepared by the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission.

"Whenever you speak you have an international audience, whenever you write, your material gets circulated internationally," Stumberg said. "I mean when I go to Geneva, people said do you have any more letters from Maine and Vermont, they do. They're like hungry for it. Tell me what they're saying in Augusta, Maine."

If Chinese trade officials get wind of what state Rep. Bernard Ayotte (R-Caswell) thinks of their TPPA aspirations, they may conclude there's more PR work ahead. The lawmaker from Aroostook County sits on the citizen trade commission and he's inclined to hold China at arm's length.

"We hold other countries to a standard, no child labor, no slave labor, no discrimination against women, no political prisoners, but yet we almost have to make an exception for China, so why should we make that exception when they're blatantly breaking, blatantly not following basic human rights rules," Ayotte asked.

Ayotte has other concerns about Maine's trade profile, particularly about whether international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership could potentially place Maine at a disadvantage. Michael Herz, of Damariscotta sits on the commission as a representative of non-profit environmental groups. He pays attention to environmental interests that could be affected by trade agreements with countries such as China. He's particularly concerned about Maine's procurement policies.

"We want the state to purchase things that are made preferably in Maine or at least in the United States and that are made under good working conditions that don't have negative environmental impacts during the process of manufacture," Herz said.

Nicole Brown of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign agreed. She told members of the commission that Maine jobs will be on the line depending on the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

"This upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership really has a direct threat to the shoe industry in Norridgewock and Skowhegan, but our biggest concern around this agreement is the lack of transparency from the U.S. Trade representative Ron Kirk," Brown said. "He has not been releasing to the public the trade documents, the negotiation documents which is unprecedented."

According to the National Business Review of New Zealand, many democratic countries in the Pacific are open to a better trade relationship with China, but they are wary of hot button issues such as the sale of farm land. The recent sale of a bankrupt New Zealand dairy farm group to a Chinese firm for $170 million dollars triggered protests among some New Zealanders because the Chinese government does not permit the sale of land in China.

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