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Filling the breach: Exploring China’s role in post-TPP Asia

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This month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with top Chinese officials to pave the way for talks between the two countries’ leaders. Chinese economic policies in the Pacific will surely be discussed, especially as China exploits the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to assert itself as a powerful influence on trade policy in Asia. As the talks near, China’s new trade agreements with other Asian countries will offer valuable insight into how China has sought to expand its economic influence and upset Asia’s political landscape in the process. Amid rising tensions in Asia, the leaders of the United States and China must both recognize the futility of their attempts to use trade agreements as tools to dominate political developments in the Pacific region. Furthermore, while these two superpowers compete unsuccessfully for regional power, it will be the economic prosperity of other Pacific nations that suffers.

Discussions of Asia without the TPP may come as a surprise to some, especially considering the Obama administration’s strong support for the agreement. However, carried into office by the surging tide of populism, President Donald Trump has quickly acted to reverse any pro-globalization policies promoted by the previous administration. Without ratification from the United States, the TPP cannot go into effect, removing any possibility of the trade deal further integrating the economies of Asia and the United States. When President Trump put an end to the agreement, critics speculated that in response to U.S. actions, China would step in as the new economic leader in the Pacific region through trade deals excluding the United States. At the time of Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, China had not yet enacted any such agreements, leaving its future role in the region unclear.

However, it did not take long for China to adjust to the United States’ withdrawal from the TPP and champion new international trade policy in the Pacific. After the TPP’s demise, many countries in Asia turned to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as the primary trade agreement, intended to promote freer trade between the many Pacific nations involved. Glaring differences between the RCEP and the TPP include the RCEP’s inclusion of China, as well as the absence of the United States despite its position as a major trading partner with many of the nations involved in the RCEP. Although negotiations among the 16 participating countries are ongoing, the RCEP agreement primarily focuses on lower tariffs, without any rules on environmental and labor protections. The trade deal will further integrate the economies of the participating countries, allowing for supply chains unhindered by expensive tariffs.

Cast in the role of outside observer to the RCEP because of its own political motivations, the United States loses out on a powerful tool for exerting its economic power to influence political and social issues in Asia. Under President Obama, the United States offered the economic benefits of lower tariffs to encourage developing nations in Asia to adopt stronger environmental and labor standards. Under the RCEP, it is unlikely that such protections would be enacted on the scale that the TPP proposed. After all, for many manufacturing-based economies in Asia, the lack of these safeguards allows their firms to produce at lower prices than many competitors can. Through the RCEP, China seeks to provide the Pacific region with the benefits of lower tariffs, without taking away the low-cost manufacturing advantage of these nations. In doing so, it hopes to assert itself as a powerful influence in the region and improve ties with other Asian countries, even as it pursues aggressive, expansionist policies in the South China Sea.

If China wishes to continue as the dominant economic force in Asia, however, it must also accept the detrimental economic effects of its politically motivated exclusion of the United States from the RCEP. Exports to the United States make up 18 percent of China’s total exports. As such, China would gain a great deal from free trade with the United States, though China would have to weigh this against regional influence lost to the United States. Furthermore, if China continues to exclude the United States from its trade agreements in the Pacific, increased tensions between the two countries could drive Trump to pursue protectionist policies. This would prove highly detrimental to the Chinese economy, threatening its ability to sell products abroad at lower prices than U.S. competitors can.

Most significantly, though, the politicized absence of the United States from Pacific trade agreements endangers the economic well-being of other Asian countries. Manufacturing-dependent economies like Malaysia and Vietnam looked to the TPP to provide access to U.S. markets like textiles, where these countries could sell their products at low prices. However, Chinese markets already have access to cheap manufactured goods produced domestically. Thus, trade deals with China would be unlikely to benefit other Asian economies to the degree that free access to U.S. markets would. Because of this, China would be less able to exert its economic leverage in pursuit of political influence in Asia, and developing economies in the region would suffer.

As talks between the leaders of the United States and China draw near, both countries must recognize the unintended consequences of trade policy as a tool for political influence. The allure of unfettered access to American markets will continue to divide the loyalties of Asian nations, even as China entices them with promises of freer trade within the region. As issues with the TPP and RCEP demonstrate, neither nation will secure uncontested political influence in the Pacific region through heavily politicized trade agreements. Instead, both the United States and China should focus on creating trade agreements to optimize economic growth in the numerous developing nations of the Pacific region through freer trade. If the United States and China cooperate on trade policy to achieve this goal, both they and many others in the Pacific region will benefit. Neither country should allow political machinations to stand in the way of economic progress.

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