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Pacific Rim officials are meeting in Hawaii this week for talks that could make or break a trade deal that aims to boost growth and set common standards across a dozen economies.MARCO GARCIA/Reuters

The Trans-Pacific Partnership talks will break through or break down during ministerial talks that are under way right now in Maui, Hawaii. But it would hardly be surprising if you neither knew nor cared. The negotiations have been dragging on for years, are enmeshed in secrecy and are so complex that only a handful of trade experts really understand them.

Nonetheless, they matter, especially for Canada. This trading country's future depends on tapping into the fast-growing markets of the Asia-Pacific region. Your job – and especially your children's jobs – could hinge on whether the talks succeed, and what Canada has to give up in order to be part of the world's newest and most powerful trading club.

So herewith, a primer on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, commonly known as the TPP.

What is the TPP anyway?

When it became clear, more than a decade ago, that the Doha round of global trade talks were foundering, countries began to negotiate new bilateral and multilateral agreements to keep the dream of globalized free trade alive. The most important of these talks is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving the United States and 11 other Pacific countries. They are (by size of their economy) Japan, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei.

The TPP matters for two reasons. First, it's an ambitious accord that goes beyond free trade in goods to include services and agricultural support. Second, it's huge, encompassing nearly 40 per cent of the world's gross domestic product.

How much does it matter to Canada?

A lot, for two reasons.

1) Because Mexico and the United States are part of the TPP, the new pact will be, in effect, a new NAFTA. (The North American free-trade agreement that involves Canada, the United States and Mexico.) If Canada, for some reason, did not join the TPP, then we would be stuck inside NAFTA 1.0 while the United States and Mexico operated under the upgraded NAFTA 2.0.

2) The U.S. economy will become less and less dominant in this century and Canada's reliance on exports to the United States could leave our own economy vulnerable. Being part of the TPP would instantly expand Canada's trading footprint in Asia and the Pacific, offering new opportunities and markets for Canadian resources, products and services.

Is there much opposition?

Oh yes. The Harper government insists it can be part of the TPP while still retaining supply management. This decades-old system protects dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competition through a system of internal quotas and external tariffs. But most observers believe joining the TPP will mean at least weakening supply management, exposing the dairy and poultry industries to foreign competition. Not surprisingly, those industries strongly oppose Canada joining the TPP if it undermines supply management.

Is it just about cows and chickens?

No. There is opposition to the TPP in every country where opposition is allowed. The agreement is likely to limit protectionism in the awarding of government contracts – so no more "buy local" rules allowed – and to stiffen protections for intellectual property, which could lead to more expensive prescriptions, among other things.

Anti-globalization activists warn deals such as the TPP weaken national sovereignty and strengthen the power of transnational corporations. You either believe that or you don't.

What's in it for the other guys?

Some believe the United States is using the TPP to contain Chinese influence in the Pacific. (Others believe China and other countries will ultimately join the TPP, making it even larger and more important.) Australia and New Zealand, which abolished most agricultural subsidies years ago, are hoping for access to protected markets, such as Canada's. Japan seeks to reverse more than two decades of economic decline through liberalized trade. (The biggest price Canada might pay by staying out of the TPP could be loss of access to a newly opened Japanese market.) Other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, hope the TPP will accelerate their growth from developing to developed economies.

And just about everyone wants to belong to any club that has the United States and Japan in it.

Could the TPP be an election issue this fall?

Absolutely, it could. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated it is "essential" for Canada to be a part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While the Liberals support the TPP in principle, the NDP is concerned about the potential impact on supply management and may oppose the deal.

In that case, the federal election could be, in part, about whether Canada should join or stay out of the TPP.

What happens next?

Assuming the ministers reach an agreement during the Maui talks, the next most important step will be the vote in the U.S. Congress on ratification. If it passes, then the other countries will move rapidly to ratify as well. If it fails, then this will all have been a waste of time.