Within his first week in office, President Trump announced that he would not continue with the Obama-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Under the TPP, the economies of the 12 Pacific rim states, which encompass 40% of global GDP would create the largest FTA in history. Many expected Trump’s announcement to be the end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, this week in the backdrop of PresidentTrump’s visit to Asia, the other 11 members including Malaysia, Canada, and Vietnam signed the TPP.
Trump’s withdrawal was no surprise. He had vehemently campaigned against it in the run-up to the elections (as did Senator Bernie Sanders). Trump quickly grasped the feelings of Americans towards FTAs. During the elections only 45 per cent of Americans held positive views of FTAs, according to a Pew Survey. That number has rebounded to 52 per cent but also remains highly partisan with Republicans remaining more skeptical.
Trump’s distaste for Free Trade Agreements have also put a dark cloud over NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) renegotiations, a deal which Trump has previously called the “worst trade deal ever made”. Should NAFTA also fall, it will have domestic and international economic effects and would be a major factor in the upcoming Mexican elections and the US 2020 elections.
The security implications of TPP withdrawal are as important as the economic factors. The TPP was part of a larger picture of US involvement in the Asia-Pacific in an attempt by the Obama administration to ‘Rebalance Towards Asia’. This constituted a wide-ranging collection of diplomatic, economic and military commitments to the region designed to check China’s rise. The hope was that greater US involvement in the region would also serve to reassure US allies such as South Korea and Japan of its commitment.
And there was significant reason for these allies to be reassured. In addition to the unpredictable actions and threats of North Korea, these allies have had to consistently contend with the aggressions of China in the region. The recent declaration of a “new era” in China has led to a significant increase in the insecurity of region with China now seeking a greater role in international affairs.
As Trump continues to put his “America first” policy into action, it is essential for him to weigh short-term objectives with longer-term ones. While it is generally agreed that Free Trade Agreements are tough on Blue Collar America, the US steady withdrawal from global affairs is leaving a vacuum. China is taking the necessary steps to fill this vacuum and reshape global affairs for its own purposes. China is establishing financial institutions with a view to setting up its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
As China embeds itself more within the international system, seismic changes in the world’s political, economic and military will occur.
The fact that these 11 nations of the Pacific Rim signed the TPP also signals their belief that America is not necessarily the “indispensable nation” it once was. At this stage, China’s rise to greater prominence is inevitable. However, the question of how best to accommodate this rise within the international system is up for debate. I contend that US withdrawal and allowing the vacuum to be filled by China is not the best way ahead.
A balance in US foreign policy must be sought with a long view of global affairs.