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What's up with trade agreements? Fear and pride, that's what.

So I was catching up on my Asia news while in Singapore recently, to learn that the ASEAN countries are essentially on notice that they'd better put-up-or-shut-up in creating a more integrated regional trading force. (ASEAN is sort of NAFTA East, but excludes China and India, although they are party to regional discussions with ASEAN.) I've been tracking this for a long time because I predict the Asian countries in ASEAN (and India and China, but especially the fast-rising Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam) are in a position to both grow and be more powerful on the world political stage via a combination of economic emergence and tighter integration. With all the hand-wringing in the West about the impact of China as an economic superpower, I think China's got nothing on what can happen with ASEAN. After all, the structural and resource disparities among these countries create an ideal opportunity for partnership. Outside of India and China, ASEAN countries have labor, transportation, logistics and targeted industrial support well in hand -- and it's only going to get better.

And now, the WTO talks have sputtered (almost) to a close. The US Trade Representative, a very impressive woman named Susan Schwab, won't quite admit the current round is dead, but as of last Friday, the agricultural subsidy issues seem to have put the trade talks on life support.

So, with ASEAN, what's up? I think the security issues that are being blamed for sidetracking the talks are really a sideshow, as important as they are in the context of the Burma international aid fiasco. India and China have already begun military cooperation (as of last year), but given their very real border disputes, I believe the ASEAN cooperation framework is going to be less interesting to them than occasional bilateral moves between them. The ASEAN countries clearly have a window of opportunity. They need each other more than they would benefit from going it alone in the region. So I'm not really sure what's holding them up -- unless the newly shiny Vietnam, Thailand and now Cambodia are just not as interested in cooperation. Growth can make you heady.

And the farm subsidies that are confounding the WTO talks? It's fear. There are too many vested interests on all sides within the agribusiness arena to let this one be easily resolved. Plus, food supplies are a matter of national security (and, in France, food quality is a matter of national pride). It gets tricky pretty fast. 

I think the argument that the US wants open, free trade of food supplies (except when we don't) doesn't frame the US point-of-view accurately. For many businesses in the US, it's about creating new markets all around the world, in part by dismantling or damaging their domestic markets. While some might view this is economic "restructuring" in the name of free trade, I don't see it that way. Creative destruction can be well and good, but for me the social and national identity issues in a nation's food production are crucial. 

And I admit that's because I like my Croque Madames made with local French farm eggs, EU ham, Poilane bread, and Gruyere. It's not just France's identity at stake. It's my own. 

Think of it this way: Freer trade makes the source and type of food you eat far less "local". While it has been argued (even in the liberal online mag Salon.com, whose journalism I love) that local produce is not necessarily "green" (burns more fossil fuels per unit than mass distributed food), local produce has something that agribusiness folks can't every package. 


So, what's up with the trade agreements? In ASEAN, country pride. In the WTO -- global corporate pride. And a bit of fear that globalized food supplies will stamp out a lot of valuable things about place, sovereignty and security.

UPDATE: CNN covers this story today (Wednesday) with a nice summary of the WTO breakdown. And Forbes has a brief article as well that summarizes the issues, the winners/losers, and the hope for continuation of this seven-year-old Doha round.

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