President Obama and his foreign relations corps have been touting their strategic “pivot” to Asia for years, but so far the catchy slogan remains just that. Repeated fiascoes in the Middle East and, most recently, Ukraine, have forced the administration to keep both feet firmly planted while our foreign policy agenda in Asia either stagnates or deteriorates.
It is thus little wonder that President Obama has been advocating fast-track approval – a ratification vote with no congressional debate – for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a massive free trade agreement with primarily Pacific Rim nations. He seems to feel it is his only hope at preventing his pivot from going the disastrous way that did his failed “reset” with Russia.
The President, however, would be wise not to stake so much of his reputation on an agreement that excludes China, the most consequential power in the region. In doing so, the administration only stands to sour relations with the ascendant power further. While China has recently expressed a timid openness to joining the talks, it is extremely unlikely that it would agree to the high regulatory threshold of the partnership. Without China’s involvement, the TPP sends a strong message of exclusion and aggression.
Apart from its scope, the accord is like most free-trade agreements in that it greases the wheels of trade among signatories by eliminating tariffs, streamlining customs, and promoting growth-oriented domestic business climates (that also align neatly with U.S interests). Opponents are primarily concerned with the extremely secretive nature of the negotiations, which have broad implications for environmental, labor, and intellectual property policy.
I concern myself here, however, with the strategic implications of excluding the world’s most rapidly rising power from the accord at a time when it is moving to align further with Russia.
China is not shy in expressing its desire to assert control over Asia-Pacific and deny the United States access to a region it hopes to dominate. In theory, one of the best ways to prevent a catastrophic deterioration of relations would be to pull China into greater cooperation with the Western-led economic order; if China’s economy were more liberalized and beholden to global practices, it would be less willing threaten the balance of power. Furthermore, many thinkers hold that a more open China would eventually shake the ruling Communist Party, becoming less provocative and more inclined to support the status quo than shatter it.
In this context, pulling as many nations as possible into the Western fold could isolate China and force it to play ball. This seems to be the idea with the TPP, as the U.S. has made little serious effort to accommodate Beijing and the two sides seem hopelessly far apart. However, the strategic calculus has changed since the plan’s inception. Years ago, before Putin regained the Russian presidency, the West had reason to believe that Russia could warm up to the Western order and help us hem in China’s expansion.
This is no longer the case. Putin has made it clear, most recently in Ukraine, that he is staunchly opposed to Western expansionism, making Moscow and Beijing strange bedfellows in mutual distrust of the NATO order. The result: attempting to encircle China is not nearly as hopeful as it seemed with Russia holding the line on the Eurasian front and the People’s Republic in Asia Pacific.
China has been displaying a pointed like-mindedness with Russia, as evidenced by its often baffling support of Russia’s backwards U.N. voting. The Chinese know they have plenty to gain by befriending their northern neighbor, whether it is low gas prices, high-tech weapons, or the blessing of the world’s second largest nuclear power.
A strategic partnership between the two nations would create a diplomatic lion’s den in simmering Asia and could scuttle negotiations on issues ranging from currency manipulation to cyber warfare to human rights. Ratification of the TPP without China would only push it closer to Russia with potentially disastrous consequences. It hardly seems worth the gain of a free-trade zone in which an economy expected to hold nearly a quarter of world GDP by 2028 is excluded.