Yesterday President Donald Trump, through an executive order, withdrew the United States from the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the largest such deal in history. In doing so, he has seriously harmed America’s relationship with our Asian allies and weakened our ability to counter an increasingly aggressive China.
The TPP brought together a wide range of nations around the Pacific Rim such as Mexico, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and others. Collectively, these countries represented around 40 of global GDP. A number of studies predicted that the trade deal would have seen a net economic benefit to all countries involved. The deal went further in eliminating tariffs than most other trade deals, but also “included unprecedented trade rules governing labor and the environment, goods, services, global investment and digital commerce” (New York Times). But the TPP was not simply about boosting trade overall, it was designed to boost trade between these particular nations. In simpler words, it was a trade deal designed to keep China out. The hope was to redirect trade and reduce the member countries’ reliance on China as a source of both imports and exports.
Beyond the immediate economic effects, the TPP further carried a number of implications for the future of politics in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have become the main tool of powerful nations to impose their will on others. But economic sanctions derive their strength from the target’s dependence on trade with the sanctioner. By reducing their reliance on trade with China, member states such as Vietnam and Malaysia hoped to have greater freedom to challenge China politically and militarily. With the end of the TPP, a major potential check on China’s growing influence has been removed. This leaves the member states all the more vulnerable to Chinese influence and power.
Withdrawal from the TPP further represents a degradation of American soft power. The United States has long been the undisputed champion of liberalism in the world. Since the end of World War II, American statesmen have dominated the shaping of global trade rules and practices, placing an emphasis not only on free trade but fair trade. China has for years been pushing its own alternative to the TPP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP, however, proposes very little in the way of protections for labor and the environment, unlike the TPP. Withdrawal from the TPP gives China an opening to begin establishing their own precedents for global economic standards. Given China’s many and great human rights abuses, this is indeed a tragedy.
The end of the US’s involvement with the TPP trade deal continues President Trump’s trend of surrendering America’s commanding moral high ground. His skepticism of climate change agreements, nationalist rhetoric, dark view of globalization, and unpredictability tarnishes our image as a responsible actor in the world. President Trump’s views on trade and climate change are allowing nations such as China to present themselves as the leaders of the liberal global order. When China is the champion of freedom in the world, freedom dies.