Has Trump committed a faux pas by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership? 26-Nov-16
President Obama will go down in history as a visionary leader, an able administrator, a pacifist, and above all, an astute statesman and a strategist. He soon realised that the only way to protect the interests of East Asian countries to cope with an aggressive China was by establishing military, diplomatic and trade ties with them. It is in this context that he came out with two of his signature lynchpin policies: ‘Pivot to Asia’ and ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership.’
The first, the Pivot to Asia policy, was more of a strategic response to China’s growing military and economic might. The Pivot to Asia was a US response to the growing assertiveness in South East Asia. The Chinese viewed it as an attempt to contain their influence in the region. The policy aimed at strengthening the bilateral security alliances with the East Asian countries. The importance of the policy was realised when the United States sent two frigates in the South China Sea to send a signal to China that it would not allow it to arrogate the right to the resources in the disputed shoals to itself, especially when China staked its claim over Scarborough Shoals and Sparty islands.
The Pivot to Asia policy was put to a severe test when the Philippines, a strong ally of the United States and who had an ongoing dispute with China over Scarborough shoal, decided to undermine the United States by negotiating directly with China, in spite of the International Arbitration Board deciding the matter in its favour. This undermined Obama’s efforts to protect the Philippines from the unlawful territorial claims made by China. To add insult to injury, Philippines asked the United States to remove all its troops from its country. This unexpected development came as a jolt to the United States ‘China Containment’ policy. The outcome of this development also entailed encouragement of China to become more assertive in the region, a prospect dreaded by smaller countries like Vietnam and Malaysia.
As regards the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it took over seven years for President Obama to bring all 12 countries: the US, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru on board. The objective of the TPP was to boost trade and to foster close economic ties between the partners. In addition, Obama wanted to create a single market like the European Union. The treaty would have created a market for East Asian countries, Australia, and New Zealand to boost their exports by taking advantage of tariff concessions. Similarly, the US farmers, retailers, and service providers would have found a ready market in Asia. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico.
However, with one stroke, the President-elect Donald Trump has conveyed his intentions to pull out of the deal by calling it a disaster and not in America’s interests. If he finally decides to pull out, he would not only end up diminishing American influence in the region but would also put its credibility at stake in the Asia Pacific region. The East Asian countries would now be loathed to entering into any future partnership or alliance with the United States. In effect, Trump will only strengthen the hands of China by taking advantage of the vacuum created by their exit.
There is also a growing fear among Japan and South Korea that Donald Trump will not safeguard their interest in the future, and the 50-year-old alliance would be sacrificed. If that happens, it would be difficult to put a check on rogue countries like North Korea, from launching attacks on South Korea. Moreover, the United States will unwittingly start an arms race in the region by compelling South Korea and Japan to look for a nuclear option to safeguard their interest. This will unwittingly start an arms race in the region.
In sum, the faux fax committed by Trump will have a disastrous consequence for the US influence on the global stage. We already see a rising China and Russia, who are sparing no efforts in diminishing the US influence in Asia–Pacific Rim. It is feared that both Russia and China will now try to dominate politics in the Middle East and Asia. Moreover, an immediate fallout would be countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia would be forced to negotiate directly with China. Trump, by pulling out from TPP, will only confirm the fear of smaller countries in trusting the US in all of their future negotiations.
Their safe bet would now be to rely on China, rather than the United States, to settle their disputes, as recently demonstrated by the Philippines. In one stroke, Trump has managed to diminish the US influence in South East Asia. It is a foregone conclusion that without TPP, the US influence in the Asia -Pacific region will be severely dented. Perhaps, Trump, with his lack of experience in International relations, has not thoroughly thought out the ramifications of pulling out of TPP.
It is unlikely that Trump would reconsider the decision because of his “America First” election campaign, where he has promised to bring jobs back to the country. Unfortunately, his bête noire Hillary Clinton, who initially supported TPP, is now against ratifying the deal. China would now take full advantage of Trump’s decision by expanding its influence in the Asia-Pacific rim. As New York Times in an article “China’s Influence Grows in Ashes of Trans-Pacific Trade Pact” aptly put it, “the defeat of TPP is an unalloyed triumph for China, the country that President-elect Donald J. Trump repeatedly castigated over trade.”
K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator