Does the Asia-Pacific region need TPP?
If 2011 witnessed the United States’ “return to the Asia-Pacific,” the focus of U.S. foreign policy in 2012 appears to be to promote its entire Asia-Pacific strategy through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In this context, what people need to understand is why the United States needs the TPP strategy and what impacts the TPP strategy will have for the United States, the Asia-Pacific region, and the rest of the world.
Despite the impact of the current financial crisis on the West, it is clear that the United States retains a high level of strategic decision-making and strong capabilities of finding ways out of the crisis. The U.S. TPP, initially an economic policy aimed at promoting free trade relations in the Asia-Pacific region, has evolved into a pillar for the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy, hugely defining its nature.
Why should it have changed in this way? In the view of the United States, the global financial crisis clearly shows that the core of the world economy is rapidly shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the United States has to change its traditional stance, focused on maintaining its relationship with the North Atlantic, to the Asia-Pacific region. The way the United States plans to shift to the Asia-Pacific (or rather how it plans to maintain its influences in the Asia-Pacific region) includes developing a “higher level” of economic and trade relations than was the case in the former regional cooperation and bilateral relations, in addition to maintaining and increasing its military presence, in order to exert influence. As well as being unwilling to lose its traditional influences in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States is also actively exploring new bilateral relationships (such as with Vietnam) and cross-regional cooperation, in order to preserve its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. TPP strategy is mainly characterized as follows.
Firstly, the United States intends to establish a much more open trade and economic relationship than the existing global trade organization WTO. The reasons for this are clear. At a time when the WTO, currently the most democratic organization in decision-making in global affairs, including economic ones, is unable to accept U.S. dominance, it is perfectly natural for the United States, as the sole economic superpower, to look for other options in order to protect its own interests.
Secondly, although the Asia-Pacific region already has APEC, the East Asia “10+3” mechanism, and the “10+6” cooperation model, none of these cooperation mechanisms is led by the United States – instead they are either led by Asia-Pacific countries, or the East Asian Countries take turns hosting them, or policies are made by these countries through multilateral consultation mechanisms. Given the context where the United States insists on holding on to its dominance in the politics and economy of the Asia-Pacific region, it is quite natural for the United States to be unwilling to be excluded from these regional multilateral mechanisms, or to allow its interests or participation shares to be shaped or defined by any other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thirdly, the United States has chosen “greater openness” than that of the existing global and regional mechanisms as its basic TPP stance. On the one hand, this fully reflects the “No.1” status of the United States in the international community today. On the other hand, the United States is hoping to implement an open-door policy, to enable it to lead the development of this region through its dominant industries, including the agriculture and service sectors, within the TPP countries.
Fourthly, it can be observed that the U.S. TPP strategy has been carefully negotiated. The United States is stressing that those who join earlier will enjoy more relaxed entry conditions than those who join at a later date. Late joiners will have to accept harsher requirements. This suggests that the United States is quite eager to promote the TPP strategy.
Based on the above, compared with the current trade and economic arrangements, such as those of the WTO, accepted by various regions and countries, the TPP appears to be more elaborate. However, just at the critical moment when the WTO process itself is undergoing a severe test, it is worth studying whether the emergence of the TPP is beneficial for the smooth running of the WTO or just the opposite. On the other hand, the result may be unequivocal, that is, the TPP process conflicts with the 10+3 and 10+6 processes in East Asia. Although the TPP might also stimulate internal cooperation within East Asia, internal division within this region might be more realistic for now.
In fact, the debates triggered by the TPP throw up questions about what attitude should be taken toward globalization. Shall we continue to promote globalization, through further international exchanges in goods, services, capital and technology to benefit all countries, or only promote exclusive regional and bilateral cooperation, and only try to place one’s own interests above global interests and regional cooperation? The TPP will obviously impact the Asia-Pacific region. And where will it lead Europe, which currently finds itself in difficulty, and Eurasia also? This requires further thought.
At such a critical moment, the great powers – those with global influence in particular – need to be cautious, as they obviously have a greater capacity to directly promote or hinder global processes than smaller powers. From this perspective, the agenda which China and Russia are considering and their readiness to promote regional and bilateral relations with more open attitudes will be of great significance for stability and progress at both the regional and global level. Domestic proposals, including those from Japan and South Korea, advocating further regional cooperation, might have a positive impact in the long run.
Feng Shaolei is Director of Centre for Russian Studies, East China Normal University.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.