US role in TPP forces ASEAN members into hard choices

By Xue Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-26 0:40:03


Illustration: Sun Ying
Illustration: Sun Ying

After the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was launched in 2005, it did not attract much attention until 2009, when the US started to get involved into the negotiation process. The US, as usual, quickly grabbed the driver's seat and pushed the process toward the direction it favors, that is, building the TPP as the model 21st century free trade agreement (FTA).

The upgrading of the TPP also fitted well within the larger context of the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. The US has clearly stated its intention of transplanting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet many people also believe that there is another intention in the US move, namely mitigating China's economic and trade influence in East Asia.

Economically speaking, the zero tariff rates for trade in goods may promote the export of the relevant ASEAN countries to the US market. If the US agrees to remove all the restrictions on its sensitive industries such as textiles and apparel, the TPP will be particularly attractive to less developed countries in Southeast Asia.

However, those developing countries need to make a trade-off for the new market opportunities, which means they have to accept more stringent environmental and labor standards, liberalization of the service sector, and stricter intellectual property rights protection.

What's more important is that to the ASEAN member countries, the TPP may make the realization of the goal of an ASEAN community even more complicated. Two major factors closely linked to the TPP could become reasons for further divides within ASEAN, the vision and approach of regional integration and the TPP's potential strategic implications.

For some US policymakers and researchers, there are two competing visions for regional integration, that is, the so-called intra-Asian integration and an Asia-Pacific FTA. In recent years, we have witnessed the rapid development of the intra-Asian model, for instance, ASEAN Plus Three and the China-ASEAN FTA. However, the Asian vision is regarded by the Americans as an exclusive economic club. So the TPP was presented as an "open and inclusive Pacific-wide FTA."

Yet the countries getting involved into the East Asian regional integration process have always been sticking to the spirit of open regionalism. The closer economic connections among the East Asian economies do not mean the exclusion of countries outside of this region.

Specifically, the major difference between various East Asian integration processes and the TPP lies in the different approaches adopted. In the East Asian integration process, China and other non-ASEAN countries all have shown due respect for ASEAN's leadership role in initiative making and agenda-setting.

All the related parties have emphasized the importance of comfortableness throughout the whole negotiation process, the aim of which is to better adapt to the diversity and differences in terms of cultural, social, and economic development. But in sharp contrast, when the US joined the TPP, the first thing it wanted was leadership and dominance over the whole agenda.

In the long term, the US approach will definitely cause discomfort to ASEAN members. Not to mention that there may be a future divide between the inside-TPP and outside-TPP ASEAN members. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently stressed that ASEAN, as an entity, could cooperate with non-ASEAN countries in the Pacific region.

It has been clear that the TPP does not represent just economic and trade interests since the US participation. The US overdependence on its alliance system and military strategy has cast a shadow over the future strategic role of the TPP.

By stressing the competition between the TPP and the Asian model most favored by China, many Americans regard the TPP as one of two wheels to realize the US strategic goal of reestablishing and strengthening its lead and dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. All the policies adopted have one clear target, China.

This has put ASEAN members into an awkward situation since it's never in their interests to see the direct confrontation between two major powers. The ASEAN used to adopt a nuanced balancing strategy among the major powers in this region. However, the current strategy upheld by the US has greatly narrowed the policy space reserved for ASEAN members.

The new TPP membership may be looked to some extent as a dividing line between a pro-US or pro-China stance, which means that ASEAN members may be prompted to get involved into the strategic competition between the two major powers.

The quarrels and debates in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting held in July have revealed the great division within the group in relation to the policies toward China. The one-sided policy pursued by certain ASEAN members could definitely cause great damage to ASEAN's role in regional affairs. And the TPP may become both a victim and one of the triggering factors for even greater divides among ASEAN members.

The author is a research fellow in the Department of International Organization and International Law of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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