Before the remarkable U.S. presidential elections, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was promoted largely as a trade deal to benefit those nations that were included, though some held that it was also meant to isolate China (the TPP includes twelve countries, but excluded China). Since the election of Donald Trump, many commentators suddenly attribute enormous geopolitical import to the very likely demise of the TPP. However, there are many reasons to believe that the end of the TPP will have rather few implications for America’s role in the region.
Before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman stated that the TPP would cover “core” issues traditionally included in trade agreements, such as the elimination of tariffs and other non-tariff barriers, as well as rules on intellectual property, labor and the environment, but that it was not aimed against the interests of China. Indeed, both Obama and his Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stated in 2015 that China could eventually join the TPP. In his book The Pivot, Kurt Campbell compares the TPP to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (China’s counter to the TPP), arguing that the TPP would deliver more income gains and “high standards.” The focus was on widespread prosperity rather than on the U.S. projecting power or protecting its role in the region.
Within days of the election, the consensus in Washington has changed. One observer after the other warned of the geopolitical consequences of the U.S. leaving the TTP. Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, claims that “U.S. failure to follow through on TPP is a huge blow to the credibility of its Asia policy with important economic and geopolitical repercussions.” In an article titled, “US Walks Away From TPP, Leaving China Free to Dominate Asia,” Anthony Rowley of The Business Times writes that “Abandoning the TPP not only runs contrary to Trump’s reported desire to limit China’s influence in the region, but also implies that the United States can expect considerable diminution in its power to shape the architecture of Asian commerce and trade.” Even more distressed is Charlie Campbell, the Beijing Correspondent for TIME, who holds that “the end of TPP sounds the death knell for outgoing President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ to Asia. TPP was to be the economic element to a strategy to counter China’s rise through enhanced military, political and economic cooperation with regional allies.”
Not to be outdone, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal opines that “The TPP would have been a geopolitical counterweight to China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific, and it would have strengthened U.S. regional relationships. Now China will strike its own trade deals one by one or across the region. Authoritarian governments are bidding to displace America as dominant powers in their regions, and Mr. Trump will be tested by this alarming trend.” An editorial in The American Interest worries that “When the TPP dies, China is well positioned to become the dominant dealmaker in the Asia-Pacific, which will only cement Beijing’s growing influence, at Washington’s expense.”
Everyone is well advised to keep their shirt on. First of all, the end of the TPP does not mean that there will be no other trade agreements, including many if not all of the same nations. President-elect Trump considers himself a tough negotiator and deal maker. He may well seek some better terms, and declare that a similar trade agreement by some other name, a victory for his acumen and skills. Next, because the TTP was never implemented, its demise will have very few economic consequences, many fewer than if say NAFTA was dismembered. Much more worrisome are other moves President-elect Trump has mentioned here and there, such as slapping high tariffs on imports from China, but these have nothing to do with the ending of the TPP.
Importantly, Trump is reported to have left the meeting with Obama, impressed with the importance and urgency of dealing with the nuclear arms buildup by North Korea. As I pointed out earlier, there is no way to curb North Korea’s nuclear program without China’s help. Obtaining China’s help will require making sure that China gains something one way or the other. Seeking to isolate it by excluding it from major regional trade deals is hardly helping to bring China aboard.
Last but not least, the changing of the guard in Washington is a good time to revisit the question of what type of relations the U.S. is seeking with China. Some days, the U.S. acts as if it is seeking to integrate China into the liberal international order, which would suggest that it should be invited to participate in any free trade deal the U.S. promotes in the region. Other days, the U.S. acts if it seeks to isolate and contain China. If this is the preferred strategy, it can be implemented without the TPP, by continuing to build up military alliances with other countries in the region, deploying American Naval vessels and troops in the region, and asserting freedom of navigation.
In short, just as those who argued before the elections that the TPP has no geopolitical implications overstated the case, those who now depict its abandonment as undermining the U.S. role in the region are doing very much the same thing. Trade agreements do not have such monumental geopolitical consequences. And the overdue review of U.S. policy toward China must be much more encompassing than viewing the TPP as a uniquely vital lever.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking outside the Box was recently published by Routledge.