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reflections

Nov 23, 2016 | 03:46 GMT

What the Failure of a Trade Deal Means for Asia

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump reiterated his plan Monday to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during his first 100 days in office. But the end of the TPP will not bring an end to Washington's involvement in Asia.
(ALEX WONG/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

For the past four years — and even since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tirelessly championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now, despite his attempts to keep the deal alive, Abe seems to have given up hope that the agreement will ever come to fruition. On Tuesday, a day after Trump announced his plan to pull the United States from the deal during his first 100 days in office, Abe declared the TPP a lost cause, saying it would be "meaningless" without Washington's participation.

For both leaders, the agreement's significance transcends its potential economic effects. But while Abe saw the pact as a commitment to combat China's growing influence and preserve the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region, Trump considered it another opportunity for the United States to overextend its reach at the expense of its workers. With that in mind, the president-elect also vowed to shift the United States' focus from multilateral deals like the TPP to bilateral agreements that will better serve U.S. interests. Still, Trump's statements, however disappointing they must have been for the Japanese prime minister, do not portend a change in Washington's overall strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.

No matter what changes the next administration ushers in, the United States' core strategic imperative will still be to prevent the emergence of another power capable of challenging its global supremacy. In a world of rival nations with uncertain intentions and the unequivocal capacity to do harm, Washington has little option but to counter threats to its privileged international position. But even if the United States' power, geography and national character doom it to forever strive to contain competing powers, they do not dictate the paths it can take to achieve that end. The United States has room to maneuver in its efforts to contain China — one of Abe's chief goals for the TPP. It is the world's dominant economic power and Asia's leading military power, and it will continue in these roles for decades to come. Furthermore, Washington's allies in Asia — all of which are wary of Beijing's growing influence and most of which are already working to improve their unilateral defense capabilities — form a ring around China's extended coastline. 

Though Trump will have to contend with domestic dissent and institutional constraints in his attempts to renounce multilateral economic and strategic cooperation in favor of one-on-one partnerships, geopolitics will not get in his way.

As the United States adjusts its approach to foreign partnerships, its allies in Asia, many of which expected Washington to increase — not reduce — its involvement in the region, will have to adapt accordingly. For one thing, they will have to acclimate to a future in which China more actively shapes regional economic competition, something that will be easier for some countries than for others. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, for instance, stand to benefit from freer cross-border trade and investment with China under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) deals. Japan, on the other hand, will have more trouble getting used to China's rules. Instead of trying to shape the RCEP deal, Tokyo will likely focus on strengthening its relationship with Washington, deepening its security ties in Southeast Asia and pursuing regional economic coordination with the countries more firmly in the United States' strategic orbit.

The region's smaller powers, meanwhile, will do what they can to make the most of their economic ties to China and do what they must to ensure a base level of security cooperation with the United States. For countries such as South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, squeezed between Asia's three giants, the ideal outcome is to never have to choose between China and the United States. Though the failure of the TPP will limit their trade opportunities with the United States, it will create new opportunities with China, perhaps compelling Washington to increase its support for them in the process.

For China, the demise of the TPP represents an opportunity to influence the future of trade and economic competition in the Asia-Pacific region to its benefit — and to its rivals' detriment. This does not mean that Beijing will have carte blanche to remake East Asia in its image. Between its internal political and economic problems and the hostile strategic environment surrounding it, China faces immense challenges not only to its long-term rise but also to its short-term stability. A shift in U.S. policy away from multilateral obligations and toward bilateral cooperation may relieve some of the more immediate pressures on China's leaders and delay a reckoning between Washington and Beijing over their respective positions in the region. But as long as China's power grows, no adjustment in Washington's strategy or tactics will obviate the United States' grand strategic imperatives.

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