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 21st century. 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
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
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.