Sensational! Ukraine submits request to join free trade agreement CPTPP while England will sign on next Saturday as a full member

Aspiring prime minister Pita once held up a sign: “Thailand, don’t rush. It’s not worth it”

Reuters/Agencies/MGR Online – Ukraine has officially submitted a request to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement of Pacific nations, in hopes of reviving its economy after the war. Meanwhile, in a ceremony next week in Oakland, New Zealand, England will register its name as a full member, having separated from the unified EU economy in the days of Brexit. Sensational that aspiring prime minister Pita Limjaroenrat, in a previous interview on the issue of Thailand joining CPTPP, showed: “Thailand, don’t rush. It’s not worth it. Don’t fall under the spell of the GDP numbers.” But his opinion might change if he gets enough votes to become our next prime minister.

Japan Times reported on Saturday (8th July) that in the next week, England is about to become a member of the free trade agreement CPTPP, which focuses on economic strategies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. There will be a ceremony for England to sign its name to the CPTPP agreement in Oakland, making it the 12th country to become an official member.

Damien O’Connor, New Zealand’s Minister for Trade and Export Growth, made an official statement on Saturday (8th July) as follows:

“The United Kingdom’s membership of CPTPP sits alongside our bilateral Free Trade Agreement to ensure that Kiwi exporters have unprecedented access to the sixth largest economy in the world.”

At one time, CPTPP was seen as a tool to counter the ascendant powers in the Asia Pacific region. But a major shift took place in 2017, when former US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement. As a result, Japan, a key nation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, tried to salvage the tenets of this agreement. In the end the group became the CPTPP. At present there are 11 members: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.

So, the upcoming signing ceremony in which England will become a member will take place at the ministerial meeting of member nations in Oakland, New Zealand. New Zealand will take on the role of host from Saturday July 15th until Sunday July 16th.

China, an immensely powerful nation in the global economy, submitted a request to join the terms of the free trade agreement CPTPP in 2021. Apart from Peking, other nations that have asked to become members are Taiwan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.

And here is a curious point, revealed by Japan and New Zealand: the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, submitted an official request for CPTPP membership to New Zealand. Reuters reported this news on Friday (7th July).

A spokesperson further stated that the next step is an evaluation of this request by the existing 11 member nations – which will likely take place on Sunday (16th July).

In this regard, Minister of Economic Revitalization of Japan Shigeyuki Goto, stated in a news conference that as a CPTPP member, Japan “must carefully assess whether Ukraine fully meets the high level of the agreement” in terms of market access and conditions.

For Thailand, CPTPP continues to be a double-edged sword. As aspiring prime minister Pita Limjaroenrat conveyed in an interview with Thai media on 28th April 2020, going to the extent of holding up a sign with a message and hashtag:

#CPTPP is not worth it; don’t take advantage of the chaotic times

He divulged that he had sat and read it himself, pointing out that it has many complex topics and, including supplemental documents, is over 1,500 pages long. He contradicts the stance of General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government, claiming instead that it’s uncertain whether participating in the agreement would enable increased Thai exports to the trading partners (the 11 nations), or not. Further, it’s unclear how the trade and investment environment in the age of “new normal” after COVID-19 will take shape.

Those blabbing on about “diversify” and distribute risks don’t want Thailand to cozy up to any one nation in particular.

The reporter asked Pita his thoughts on a point raised by former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who once said that if Thailand were to sign on as a CPTPP member, it would raise Thailand’s GDP by up to 0.12%. But the aspiring prime minister countered: we have to ask first, into whose hands will this increase go? Which group of investors will get an advantage? In debates in the National Assembly, Pita has also affirmed several times that he doesn’t trust in GDP numbers alone. Simply showing an increase in that number doesn’t necessarily mean increases in happiness or security.

BBC-Thai has previously reported on various issues that have delayed Thailand from joining the CPTPP, along with the fact that Thailand would have to alter several of its laws. People have voiced concerns about negative effects on the agricultural sector, especially the issue of rights related to seed varieties, about health impacts from patents on pharmaceutical products, and about fallout from protecting foreign investments.

So reporters dug into this issue of impacts on the agricultural sector with the head of the Move Forward Party, pointing out that if Thailand blunders into joining the agreement it will open the doors for foreigners to take indigenous plants, use them to develop new seed varieties, and go register patents for them under UPOV 1991. And then Thailand will no longer be able to save seed varieties for cultivation.

The prime ministerial candidate replied quickly, though with some equivocation: this is one of the disadvantages of joining the free trade agreement CPTPP. The terms obligate member countries to become signatories to other treaties as well, including the Paris Agreement and the Madrid Protocol. It’s like “hitching beer to liquor sales”[1].

UPOV 1991 is a convention on the protection of plant varieties. Pita replied that if Thailand were to participate in CPTPP, some of Thailand’s laws will have to be modified in order to align with CPTPP regulations. Thailand will be required to follow UPOV 1991, which clearly indicates that saving seeds to cultivate them in the next season is not permitted. It will be as if the seed varieties are already registered and must be purchased each time. It undermines Thailand’s biodiversity, which is one of the nation’s strengths. Before holding forth on Thailand’s many rice varieties, Pita pointed out that regardless of negotiations around international trade, this approach to protection of seed varieties does not reflect reality. Because when people can save seeds, plant and herb varieties remain protected.

Evidence from the website of Bangkok Bank SME, which did an analysis of UPOV 1991, states:

UPOV 1991 is an international convention that focuses on the protection of new plant varieties. It gives absolute rights over new plant varieties to the breeder as a way to protect intellectual property. The conditions of CPTPP stipulate, in the article on intellectual property, that member countries must also become signatories of UPOV 1991.

The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) carried out a report on this topic in 2005. Information from this study shows that countries that were developing seed varieties for massive commerce lobbied for the development of UPOV 1991 from the previous version – namely, from UPOV 1978, a rigorous agreement for the protection of plant varieties. They tried to persuade various countries to see its importance and to become signatories voluntarily, so that 31 countries joined. According to the terms, members must join willingly. But withdrawing from membership can only be done with difficulty – and may require that country to pay damages later.

Importantly, this version constituted an expansion of this domain of rights, giving “plant breeders” monopoly rights in blocking others from appropriating various materials used in plant propagation – like plant seeds and grafts – for use in commerce or in propagation for planting. It even gives them monopoly rights in imports and exports, and in saving materials used in propagation for sale or cultivation.

The disadvantage of becoming a member of UPOV 1991 is that it brings about various restrictions and various farmers’ privileges in the saving and trading of seed varieties. This means that farmers will not be able to use their traditional methods of planting and cultivation. For example, the planting of jasmine rice, which is one of Thailand’s indigenous plant varieties, will not be protected. Other countries will be able to benefit from rice varieties, giving the reason that they are using them to develop new varieties.

If we consider the member countries of UPOV 1991 that joined voluntarily, we see that they are all countries that have few indigenous plant varieties – but that have a strong capacity to develop new plant varieties. They all place high importance on this research. Thailand, on the other hand, is the opposite: it has high levels of biodiversity. Accordingly, the TDRI report found that “Thailand is completely unsuited to become a member of UPOV 1991”.

At present UPOV 1991 has a total of 74 member countries, of which 28 are developing countries. The two ASEAN countries that participate are Vietnam and Singapore. Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines have expressed a desire to join this convention as well, while Thailand has not become a member.

Pita reiterated clearly that it was appropriate for the matter to be settled in the National Assembly. But at this time, as the head of the Move Forward Party aspires to become the new prime minister, we will have to watch this issue about the terms of the CPTPP fair trade agreement. Will Pita’s team remain adamant about his stance or not? Especially with CPTPP’s popularity – with both post-Brexit England looking for new markets and China one day becoming the group’s largest member nation.

Perhaps having some of the most powerful global economies join the group will mean that Thailand will be disadvantaged if it waits too long. Its neighboring countries and competitors in Southeast Asia – fast-growing Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore – have already become members ahead of Thailand. And they’ll have broad access to the economies of member countries, including the powerhouses England and China.

[1] Some companies that have both liquor and beer products require retailers and other buyers to purchase beer in order to be able to purchase liquor. This forces retailers that want to carry a company’s liquor products to also buy their beer.