By Alan Tonelson
April 16, 2018
At first I was irritated with President Trump for his expressions of interest this year in reviving U.S. efforts to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the Pacific Rim-wide trade agreement that former President Barack Obama couldn’t persuade Congress to ratify, and that Mr. Trump removed from America’s policy agenda during his first week in office.
I still wish the President had kept the TPP consigned to the proverbial ash heap of history. But I do see one silver lining in his apparent about-face: the new opportunity it creates to remind how awful the Obama TPP was, and in particular how cynical the case that it represented a masterful ploy to contain the rise of Chinese power regionally and globally, and even shape it to serve America’s goals of sustaining an open world trading system.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Trump’s apparent new openness to TPP results at least partly from widespread claims from mainstream politicians and analysts that its multilateral nature endowed the deal with much more potential to curb China’s trade predation than the unilateral tariffs he’s announced.
Yet this contention is the one that’s most easily refuted. First, the version of the treaty signed by Obama contained a wide open back door for many Chinese exports by allowing goods that contained high levels of content produced outside the TPP zone to be traded freely within the zone. Given how central China is to Asia-wide production chains, these loose rules of origin were bound to enable China to enjoy crucial benefits created by the TPP without incurring any of the obligations.
Second, until the eve of its departure from office, neither the Obama administration nor any TPP supporters in Congress or the mainstream media or the think tank world lifted anything more than the occasional pinky even to protest perhaps the principal source of China’s rising economic and military power – the massive transfer of cutting edge knowhow, along with capital, from U.S. tech companies to Chinese business partners or other institutions, either voluntarily (including through shortsighted training programs and investments in Chinese entities) or involuntarily (due to Beijing’s widespread practice of linking access to the China market to the handover of critical technology).
The sudden transformation of these corporate panda-huggers and their hired American guns into China skeptics and even hawks has demonstrated nothing more than that national security is the last refuge of a trade policy scoundrel – especially since by all accounts, U.S. technology and investment continue pouring into China – including defense-related tech. (See here and here for some evidence.)
Third, there’s no reason to believe that most of the other key TPP members have any interest in turning China into a free-trading economy. Quite the contrary. Whether it’s Japan or Singapore or Vietnam or Malaysia, most of the treaty’s most important countries have followed China-style economic development models (except when they’ve borrowed from Japan’s somewhat different but of course much earlier blueprint). And economic openness emphatically isn’t in the recipe. What’s central to these strategies is amassing trade surpluses with the United States and the rest of the world to help generate adequate levels of growth and employment.
The bottom line: Most TPP countries knew that effective disciplines on the trade predation largely responsible for China’s surpluses could be used against their own subsidies and non-tariff barriers. Conversely, it’s surely the reason that these economies accepted the paper curbs on mercantilism that are mandated by TPP. They’re rightly confident that thanks to the secretive bureaucracies that keep their economies effectively closed – and their barriers difficult for outsiders even to identify, much less litigate – none of these curbs is remotely enforceable.
Even better for TPP’s mercantile majority, the treaty’s dispute-resolution system ensured that the United States would be repeatedly outvoted when it sought to advance or defend its interests.
That’s why the TPP was so likely to supercharge America’s already enormous and economically damaging trade deficits. The TPP mercantilists’ liberalization promises would do nothing substantial to open their markets and increase U.S. export opportunities. But America’s TPP commitments, carried out by a government characterized by transparency, would be very effective guarantees that the American market would remain wide open to the TPP majority’s products.
President Trump has demonstrated that he recognizes many of these fatal flaws in the Obama TPP. His stated preference for bilateral over multilateral trade deals suggests an understanding that the former give the United States much more legal authority in dispute resolution. Moreover, he has explicitly tweeted that he’d only back rejoining the TPP if major fixes were made.
Precisely because he’s the only American President in recent memory to show any interest in changing the nation’s ill-considered trade status quo, and any awareness that the United States retains ample leverage to achieve its trade objectives unilaterally, I can’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Trump might turn TPP into a winner for the U.S. domestic economy (as opposed to the importing and offshoring lobbies).
But the main lesson that should be taken from decades of American trade diplomacy with Asia is that economies structured to promote exports and limit imports are going to stay substantially closed no matter what promises they make. Therefore the best course for the United States to make is to expend its energy and resources on reducing its economic engagement with Asia, rather than trying to remake the region in anything like its own image.
Alan Tonelson is Founder of the blog RealityChek – www.alantonelson.wordpress.com – which covers a wide range of domestic and international policy issues along with political and social trends.
For 18 years before leaving to launch RealityChek, Tonelson followed the impact of globalization on the U.S. economy, domestic manufacturing, and U.S. national security for the U.S. Business and Industry Council. This national business organization represents nearly 2,000 domestic American companies, most of them small and medium-sized manufacturers.
Alan Tonelson is a regular columnist with Industry Today.