by Daniel Nathan, blogger for Southeast Asia Affairs
Former U.S. President Barack Obama dedicated years of his tenure working towards a trade deal that would span the Pacific, uniting countries from the East and West together accountable for roughly 40 percent of the world’s GDP. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, popularly referred to as the TPP, was signed on February 4, 2016, and included twelve nations: Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. That number has since dropped by one. On January 23, 2017, just under a year after the TPP was signed, U.S. President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise by approving a presidential memorandum, which officially withdrew the United States from the TPP before Congress had the opportunity to ratify it. This was a drastic mistake.
Economists can argue about the economic merits or shortcomings of the TPP, and there are certainly many of each. But an equally significant—and much less talked about—consideration is that of the geopolitical consequences of withdrawing from the free trade agreement.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump made a habit of discussing China, often in rather hostile terms. In an August, 2016 interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, then-candidate Trump described the United States as the “whipping post” of China. Throughout his campaign, he regularly positioned China as a potential enemy of the United States—economically, strategically, and militarily.
U.S.-Sino relations are currently stable (at least relatively so); however, should it so desire, the PRC could quickly pose an immediate threat to U.S. interests, both globally and more specifically in East Asia. Keeping this situation in mind, the logical course of action should be to take steps to minimize the potential Chinese threat. However, President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP does just the opposite.
Free trade between countries has long been seen as a way of building political—in addition to the obvious economic—international ties. The creation of the European Union, which has its roots in economic diplomacy, marked an unprecedented tightening of intra-European relations; similarly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created new bonds between the United States and its neighbors; and US economic diplomacy played a significant role in the capitalist victory of the Cold War. There is no doubt that the implementation of the TPP would significantly strengthen the relationships between all member states.
Five signatories of the TPP, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, are Asian nations. Japan is one of the United States’ most important global allies (both economically and militarily), and the latter four can all count themselves members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten-state economic trade bloc, which could prove crucial to future U.S. interests in the Asian Pacific.
If President Trump were to look at a map of East Asia, he would see that China dominates a large swath of the Pacific coastline. However, a closer look would reveal that China’s access to the open sea is not unfettered; in fact, two series of islands, known as the First and Second Chains, lay directly in the PRC’s way.
The First Chain is largely dominated by Japanese islands, and also includes TPP members Malaysia and Brunei, fellow ASEAN state the Philippines, and Taiwan. The Second Chain also originates in Japan and stretches down to Indonesia—also an ASEAN member state. In order to prevent an Asian Pacific completely dominated by China’s growing naval forces, the United States ought to promote close relations with the countries who currently stand as obstacles to Chinese territorial and military expansion.
Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly recognizes the strategic significance of ASEAN and other East Asian nations. The PRC has spent the last several years promoting its own free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would include all ten ASEAN member states as well as Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
By withdrawing the United States from the TPP, President Trump has essentially relegated the trade deal to irrelevance. And the PRC will be more than happy to take advantage of this newly opened door. Without the economic benefits of the TPP to rely on, the Asian and Oceanian signatories of the agreement now have greater incentive to sign onto China’s RCEP.
Such an event may seem trivial in terms of geopolitical significance, but, in recent years, the PRC has proven adept at exerting its economic power for political gain. Between the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Old Belt, One Road initiative, China’s continental influence is already formidable. The PRC has utilized these economic initiatives to solidify its military positions in the South and East China Seas, gain access to oil and other crucial resources in Central Asia, and attain international political support not only in Asia, but also in numerous African nations. China’s rise should already be on the minds of every U.S. policymaker, foremost among them, President Trump.
The last thing the President of the United States should be doing is gift-wrapping an additional opportunity that China might exploit at the expense of the United States.
Daniel Nathan is a Junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies International Relations.