America the Great, but Trade is Still What We Don’t Know

The Trump Administration is Killing TPP, but is that the best?

by Declan Murphy
Copy Editor

Among his many executive orders issued this week, Donald Trump announced earlier that he would not be pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal. The deal, a proposed trade agreement between Japan, Australia, and other major Pacific nations, had been proposed by the Obama administration to improve trade relations with China. Now, as part of the wave of new changes from the incoming administration, the TPP is dead.

This may come as something of a surprise to liberals, whose own relationship with the TPP has been complex. Though initially proposed by President Obama (and, initially, heartily endorsed by then-Secretary of State Clinton), opposition to the TPP was central to Bernie Sanders’ platform. Indeed, many on the left were critical of the proposal. The TPP has drawn the ire of both labor unions and environmental groups, two significant parts of the Democratic base. So why, then, is dismantling the TPP so important to a noted right-wing hack like Donald Trump?

The TPP is part of a larger effort on the part of DJT to shake up the US’s relationship with China. In addition to removing the TPP, Donald Trump has stated that he intends to label China “a currency manipulator.” Further, he placed a controversial call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, aggravating an already tense international situation.

This stands in direct contrast to President Obama’s policy over the past eight years. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2008 marked a definitive change in foreign policy, emphasizing our relationship with China as crucial to national security. The TPP was yet another part of this effort. By leading a trade agreement in the Pacific — especially one which excludes China–the US could further solidify its status as a major actor in the East and check China’s growing power.

The TPP certainly has numerous flaws. The TPP included provisions that would have effectively allowed corporations to avoid government regulations. Environmental activists pointed out that this would allow corporations to cheat environmental regulations, and enable things like polluting international waters. The agreement would’ve also limited the US’s power to regulate food imports, potentially allowing unsafe or substandard food to enter the US. It would have empowered pharmaceutical companies even further, leading to higher drug prices. The intellectual property sections of the TPP agreement could have restricted internet freedoms, violating principles of net neutrality. Lastly, it’s even possible that it would have led to human rights abuses by empowering companies (and nations) that have allowed human rights abuses to happen.

However, the problem with ending the TPP is not the agreement itself. The problem is what comes next. Something will emerge to replace the TPP, and without a US-brokered deal, the result may be even worse for US trade. A China-led TPP would increase China’s strength in the Pacific, weaken US ties, and put vulnerable states (like Taiwan and Japan) at greater risk. In fact, Australia has even signaled its willingness to participate in a China-led TPP. Especially in light of recent events, though, a further deterioration of trade relations with China could have major security implications.

Indeed, even the idea of an alternative to the TPP is straining relations with US partners in Asia. Japan needs the US to keep China in check. Much of our security relationship is predicated on the US continuing to protect Japan from Chinese encroachment. Allowing a China-led agreement to happen threatens that security. Additionally, the fact that Australia, also an important security partner, is willing to join an agreement that would weaken US power in the Pacific, is troubling in itself.

Donald Trump’s opposition to the TPP is predicated on a false nationalism and protectionism. Trump and his supporters equate trade with China to losing American jobs and weakening the US economy. This ignores the complex reality of the world economy. Low-wage jobs are moving beyond China to Indonesia, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Even more, there’s no indication that weakening trade with Asia will somehow bring jobs back to the US. This is protectionist logic that borders on isolationism. Quite frankly, this kind of thinking is self-defeating. Like it or not, we live in a globalized world. We can’t disentangle ourselves from international trade partners in order to protect jobs. Doing so damages the world market, strains relations with neighboring nations, and in the long run will have more negative economic effects. There’s no place for protectionism in the modern economy.

The dismantling of the TPP is a classic example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Or it would be, if it seemed like Donald Trump had anything in mind to replace it.) By refusing to accept a subpar agreement, we will create the conditions for an even worse trade relationship in Asia.

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