Moving from defence to offence on trade strategy

The trade architecture in East Asia — the most dynamic region in the global economy — is up for grabs. The very system on which regional arrangements are built is under threat.

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), his ‘America First’ agenda and his declaration last week of the first shots in a global trade war undermine the WTO and the global economic system that it underpins.Asia and the global community, including the United States, have relied upon and benefitted from that system for over 70 years.

Can East Asia put aside its differences and define a set of arrangements that protect its own economic security interests absent the United States? US leadership put this system in place and drove its expansion throughout the post-war years. Now the United States is generating the headwinds that threaten to unravel it. Just last week Trump announced the first salvo in what could be a trade war with a 25 per cent tariff on all steel imports and 10 per cent tariff on aluminium imports. The temptation for other countries is to retaliate with their own self-harm policies.

What’s at stake?

The multilateral trade regime provides the cement and ballast that makes it easier to manage tricky rivalries and conflictual relationships of the kind that abound in Asia but around which large-scale economic interdependence and prosperity have been built. The ‘America First’ challenge threatens the collapse of that system and a descent into beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism and political conflict reminiscent of the lead-up to World War II.

How leaders in Asia respond to this challenge and the arrangements that the region settles on will matter for three important reasons. It will substantially affect the welfare of individual countries and the communities within them. It will affect the atmosphere for both economic and political cooperation in the region. And, given the size of the Asian economy, it will matter for whether the global rules-based economic system withstands the assault upon it.

No single country can alone lead a response to the vacuum that United States is daily creating in global governance. This US-sized hole in the Asia Pacific will have to be filled with leadership from the rest of the region as a whole.

Asian and Pacific nations have responded definitively so far. And leadership has come from one of the most unexpected places: Japan, traditionally shy to step out in front.

Once Trump declared that the United States was getting out of the TPP, Japan led the remaining 11 members towards the agreement’s conclusion without the United States. That deal is expected to be signed in Chile this week. The awkwardly named Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), otherwise known as TPP-11, would not have happened were it not for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Australia’s also played a major role, but Japan (the Partnership’s largest economy absent the United States) was the decisive player.

As Shiro Armstrong explains in this week’s lead essay, ‘conclusion of the CPTPP does not deliver the big strategic goal of keeping the United States entrenched in Asia. Instead, it sends to Mr Trump a strong message of the region’s commitment to openness. Holding the line and pushing back against growing protectionist sentiment keeps the pressure up, with market opening and reform on which US businesses and consumers miss out’.

Most surprised about Japanese leadership are the Japanese themselves. As Armstrong says, Japan ‘has found itself in an unusual position. Japan has often relied on external pressure, usually from the United States, to advance its diplomatic goals and even to push domestic reforms’.

Asia cannot count on Japanese leadership alone, nor can it count on Japan’s continuing in this manner. In saving what’s left of the TPP, Mr Abe saw an opportunity to hedge ‘against the uncertainties that Trump has generated in regional and global trade policy, strengthening ties with other partners like Australia and India and laying the groundwork for improving relations with China’.

Australia almost single-handedly led the push back against Trump’s team  tearing up multilateralism as APEC’s central tenet at the summit in Vietnam last November.

With Australia having held the line in APEC and moved forward on the TPP, what is needed now is for the other powers in Asia to join Australia and Japan in preserving and protecting the global system.

The CPTPP, even if it expands membership to include other middle powers in East Asia, is not systemically important enough to do the job. With the United States in the agreement, the TPP would have accounted for 38 per cent of the global economy but without it the agreement accounts for only 13 per cent.

In East Asia, there is fortunately another vehicle that has the weight to do the job. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is currently being negotiated, involves the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. That grouping accounts for 31 per cent of global economy.

RCEP (perhaps the second-worst acronym in Asia after the CPTPP) is as important as it is difficult to realise with the required ambition. Including the major economies of Indonesia, India and China makes a tall order out of large and credible commitments to economic opening . The anxiety to get a deal done quickly could compromise the quality of the arrangement and therefore its impact. A hastily concluded RCEP deal that is not credible in its ambition would be a mistake and a huge lost opportunity, risking more harm than good. India is still playing its familiar role of spoiler by dragging the agreement down and other leaders have yet to expend political capital that they need to on RCEP.

There is no clear leader in RCEP. The Partnership is not China-led as is often wrongly claimed: ASEAN is the hub and inspiration, and the major powers, including China, are the spokes. The only leadership that China can show that Australia, Japan, India and others can accept is one where it commits to reforms and opening up its economy. That will benefit both China and the global economy.  

RCEP is the best chance at an agreement that is inclusive of China and locks it into reforms. The CPTPP may be easier for countries to join than the original TPP since it has frozen ‘some of the more egregious provisions of TPP — especially the US-pushed intellectual property protections that were likely to benefit big business in the United States at the expense of consumers in the region’, as Armstrong explains. But expanding CPTPP membership to China is unlikely since it would close the door to any possibility that the United States might rejoin at some time in the future.

There is little chance of the United States rejoining the TPP under Mr Trump or even the president after him. Piecing together political leadership on trade in Washington will be difficult without making progress on an agenda for dealing with the issues that have led to the current problems: stagnant middle-class incomes, wider distribution of the gains from trade and a properly functioning social safety net. The US Congress is unlikely to agree to join an existing deal, even though the United States was the driving force of the original TPP. The United States’ joining a deal that China is party to any time soon is inconceivable.

If East Asia does not hold the line on corrosion of the global trade regime and protectionism, no one else is likely to.Crafting regional trade architecture without the constructive participation of the United States is the immediate challenge and will remain the challenge for the foreseeable future. Australia and Japan have led the initial charge, but China, India and Indonesia will need to step up.

Asian powers may not be ready for the sort of leadership that is needed, but the threat to their interests in the global system will not wait until they are.

Source: East Asia Forum

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