The meeting of the representatives of eleven countries that participated in the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deserves particular attention due to a variety of reasons. Although at first glance it may resemble a medical consilium that was assembled to discuss the best possible treatment for a patient that is barely clinging to life, this impression is misleading.
Such comparisons only became appropriate once Washington made a decision to withdraw from the TTP, since the US was a power horse that could transform this project into a regional game changer. However, as the Hanoi meeting has demonstrated, Japan has an impressive amount of interest towards the continuation of the project, which makes all the difference, since it was believed to be the second power horse that would have made the TTP relevant.
But what advantages Tokyo can get from trying to revive the TTP, or through the imitation of such attempts? The answer lies in the dynamics that can be found within the strategic triangle “US-China-Japan”, which influences the development of the whole Asian-Pacific Region.
Until the recent presidential election in the US, when Donald Trump was elected, it was all pretty clear and straightforward. America was trying to shape the region by forming an anti-Chinese political bloc, with both geopolitical opponents of the People’s Republic of China, those are the United States and Japan, being at the head of it. But then Trump would sign an act on the withdrawal of the US from the TTP, and that’s where the situation got fairly complicated.
A number of integration project headed by Beijing were transformed into the One Belt, One Road project in a bid to provide a response to the TTP. However, once the TTP suffered the above mentioned nearly deadly incident, all the cards on the regional political table got completely messed up.
The emerging state of uncertainty in the game between them did not clear up after the One Belt, One Road summit that was held in Beijing. In spite of a string of loud statements made during this event, the summit left an impression of just a massive political show.
One should bear in mind that this autumn the Chinese Communist Party is going to hold its 19th congress, which means that its leaders are bound to present a list of achievements that they’ve managed to accomplish.
But one should understand that all the three major players in the Asian-Pacific Region are playing a new game now, that is why every one of them is busy guessing what cards the other two are holding, and bluff is definitely an option here.
For instance, take a look at Japan. Throughout the postwar period Tokyo was solving the dilemma of ensuring national security along with securing sustainable level of economic development by preserving a military-political alliance with the United States. Therefore, the signing of the TTP by Washington should have strengthened bilateral ties even further.
Regardless of the fact that the sitting US president has pledged Washington’s ongoing commitment of ensuring Tokyo’s security, the fate that the TTP suffered is forcing Japan to look for new options. Moreover, Trump’s pre-election rhetorics when he was urging America’s allies to rely more on their own security capabilities hasn’t been forgotten as well.
It’s only natural that Tokyo starts eying Beijing up in spite of the fact that through recent decades China has been regarded as a major security challenge for Japan. When there’s only three players sitting at the table other strategies simply do not exist. You find one of your opponents less reliable at one moment, then minutes later you start doubting your judgment .
The meeting of the leader of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping and the head of the Japanese delegation Toshihiro Nikai, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was unusually warm and mutually pleasant.
It should be noted that in recent months there has been an extreme amount of speculations about the possibility of getting China involved in the TTP without the US, or about prospects of Japan becoming a part of the One Belt, One Road project.
But what goals do such publications pursuit? Have China and Japan been both trying to send a sort of a message to Washington?
As we see a new Washington’s approach towards its allies emerging under the new president, which is not directly mimicking his pre-election “neo-isolationist”. It seems to be centered on the notion of applying pressure on America’s opponent through military power which seriously complicates the US-China relations.
In particular, Beijing’s was outraged by a US warship entering the 12-mile zone around one of the artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, which occurred on May 25. The island is de facto controlled by Beijing, but its ownership is being contested by the Philippines.
Thus, Beijing has every reason to make public anti-American steps and it’s not shy either, as Xi Jinping ‘s meeting with Toshihiro Nikai definitely falls into the category of such steps. But it seems that Tokyo could be following the same logics by agreeing to this meeting. It would be funny for some to learn that there’s still no free trade agreement between Japan and the US in place, although each of them used to sign such agreements in the past with other states.
Washington is frustrated by the trade deficit level that reached 70 billion dollars in 2016, while its total volume has already surpassed 350 billion dollars. The US doesn’t like cheap yen and the trade barriers that prevent such American goods as agricultural products and cars from entering the Japanese market.
Problems in the US-Japan trade relations were supposed to be solved within the framework of the TTP, but now the new US administration preferred to initiates negotiation on the conclusion of a bilateral FTA. Yet, Japan keep insisting on the need for a wider context in the attempts to create a free trade zone.
On May 18, after a month of negotiations, the new US ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty announced that the parties have almost achieved through negotiations what could be otherwise achieved within the framework of the TTP, but without it. In turn, Japan’s Minister of Trade continues insisting that Washington would be better off it it decides to return within the TTP framework.
In this connection, the opinion of the third “corner” (in this case of China) appears to be purely curious, since Beijing is convinced that the US will not return to the idea of TTP, and that Japan will find little success in its efforts to revitalize this project.
However, it can not be ruled out that the very fact that Japan held a meeting in Hanoi (just a week after the Beijing Forum) of the 11 remaining members of the TTP was demonstrative in its nature. The possible objective of such a demonstration was an attempt to show both partners in the regional strategic triangle that it can still play its own games.
Finally, one should note that without honest economic cooperation within the US-China-Japan triangle, it would be impossible to imagine the so much-needed atmosphere of trust in the region.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”