Changing view of TPP in US offers chance for China

By Chen Fengying Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-29 23:55:02

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

In this US presidential election year, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems to be increasingly unpopular. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and both Democratic presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have opposed the TPP. It is widely believed that the trade deal will encounter setbacks in the US, and some even think it might be taken off the table.

Given the US domestic political climate and the international political situation, the US presidential election is likely to bring certain changes. Domestic approval of the TPP in the US might be delayed, and there might be some uncertainties about the deal's terms and conditions.

But this doesn't mean the TPP will be shelved, because no matter how the US presidential election turns out, three things are for sure. First, the US will maintain its strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific; second, the TPP will remain the strategic centerpiece of the rebalance strategy; and third, the US will continue to use the TPP to keep China at bay. The US domestic political elites have realized that a rising China will be the main source of competition with the US.

The formation of the TPP has not been an easy process, as it started in 2005 with four initial nations - Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore - before being agreed to by the current 12 participating countries. The US presidential election also poses a key challenge for the TPP.

Furthermore, we should be aware that the agreement involves 30 significant chapters. In the agreement, the US would have taken all foreseeable factors in trade and competition by 2050 into account, leaving no country strong enough to compete with it in the coming 30 years. No matter how much later the TPP will be enacted, the US sooner or later will put the global order under its control by means of the TPP, and will try to force China to make political concessions in areas such as the bilateral investment treaty (BIT). We should also note that there are differences between how presidential candidates behave in their presidential campaigns and how they act when one of them succeeds Barack Obama in the White House. Given the TPP is relevant to US national interests and its strategic interests globally, the agreement is unlikely to fail because of the election.

But China should take full advantage of the US presidential election. In the ongoing China-US BIT negotiations, China could promote integration between certain BIT terms and the TPP terms, and push for the US to narrow its negative list.

Meanwhile, the recent change in attitudes toward the TPP offers an opportunity for China. Last November, China pushed for the signing of a joint statement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six dialogue partners, but the fact that some of the countries are also part of the TPP has put China in a difficult position, as some of the countries have become less enthusiastic about the RCEP than they are about the TPP. Some countries have even questioned the necessity of forming the RCEP.

But now, circumstances have changed as the US presidential candidates have criticized or even opposed the TPP, and this have prompted questions from some countries as to whether the new US president might seek to revise the multilateral deal and gear it more toward US interests. Because of the uncertainties created by the US presidential election, negotiations on cooperation with the US are no longer as easy as they used to be, and the US commitment could be inconsistent. In comparison, the successful launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank serves as a good example for China to demonstrate that the country is committed, leaves room for negotiations, and does not use domestic disputes as leverage against its international counterparts.

No matter who wins the US election, he or she will mainly focus on domestic policies in the first year and won't shift toward foreign affairs until after that. This creates an opportunity for China to seek further cooperation in Asia. China doesn't necessarily have to wait around to see the changes of attitude in the US toward the TPP after the election, but can act based on the fact that the US presidential election has left its foreign policies in doubt.

China has been increasing its participation in Asian affairs, and an environment of sincere cooperation between Asian countries and China has been established. Now that some countries that have participated in the TPP are less reluctant to join the RCEP, China should take this chance to develop its influence in Asia. By 2017, the US will have to seriously evaluate the pressure from the RCEP, and understand that cooperation will be based on both the TPP and the RCEP. In addition, efforts should be put toward the integration of the two mechanisms, which will help to foster a greater free trade zone - the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific.

The author is former head of the Institute of World Economic Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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