24.04.2018 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

The Trans-Pacific Partnership without US


The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a draft of a free-trade zone (FTZ) which is aimed at uniting practically the whole Asia-Pacific (APAC). Originally, the TPP was considered an exclusively American project aimed at strengthening the US influence in the APAC and decreasing that of China. However, after the US withdrew, the project, remaining practically unchanged, began to acquire a completely new meaning.

The US-initiated talks on establishing the TPP began in 2008. By the end of 2015, after lengthy negotiations, the TPP Agreement was worked out, then it was signed in Auckland (New Zealand) in February 2016.

According to the Agreement, the member states were planning to put an end to all customs duties, establish unified health safety standards, introduce a unified intellectual property protection policy, etc. According to optimistic forecasts, the new FTZ was to account for 25% of the global goods turnover over time.

12 states signed the Agreement: the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Peru and Chile.  Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Colombia and the Philippines officially expressed their interest in the TPP as well. Thailand expressed cautious interest.

The Agreement was to come into force after it received approval by all the member state governments.

At that time, the US spearheaded the Partnership.   Furthermore, many experts considered the TPP a basis for restoring and increasing the US influence in the APAC – not only in economic, but also political and even military terms.  Some pro-American media claimed that the TPP member states would unite around the US in order to contain Chinese influence.

Nevertheless, other experts realized even back then that in the contemporary multipolar world, where all states have equal rights and opportunities, the TPP member states would not follow the US lead and would not establish political or military blocs with it, and that the TPP activities would go no further than mutually beneficial trade.  This was indicated, for instance, by the participation of Vietnam in the TPP – a socialist country that is used to conducting a highly independent policy.

However, even such moderate expectations from the TPP proved overrated.  US President Barack Obama, the main originator of the Agreement, who considered its fulfillment one of the most important foreign policy objectives, failed to get it ratified by the US Congress. In November 2016, the new US President Donald Trump was elected, and he was sceptical about the TPP idea in the first place. In January 2017, the new US President signed a decree on the US withdrawal from the Partnership, which he believed did not match the US interests sufficiently.

Many TPP enthusiasts considered this move a fatal blow that put an end to the whole project.  However, the remaining 11 countries leaders thought otherwise and started to work on a new agreement.  They announced their intentions to reanimate the TPP project in November 2017, during the APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. Now, the Partnership is spearheaded by Australia and Japan.

According to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, the member states involved in the project are determined to make a commitment to free trade and join their efforts to fulfill the project as soon as possible.

In late January 2018, Tokyo hosted the decisive meeting of the TPP member state representatives, where the new text of the Agreement was finally approved.

The new TPP Agreement with no US participation was signed by 11 states in Chile on March 8 2018. It is to come into effect in 60 days after its ratification by all the member states parliaments.

The text of this document is slightly different from the original one.  Some of the countries did their best to change it to their advantage after the US withdrawal.  For instance, Vietnam suggested eliminating several articles on labour law which Washington DC imposed on its partners on the pretext of human rights protection.

The new TPP Agreement has another important feature – the possibility to accept new members. Thus, several TPP member states including Mexico, Peru and Chile encourage Russia and China joining the TPP, that is, two powerful Pacific states, which the original TPP draft did not include.  States with no access to the Pacific Ocean can also join.  For instance, the UK expressed its interest in the TPP.

The open character of the TPP grants the US the opportunity to rejoin it if it decides to do so.  And it is probable.  At the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF), which took place in late January 2018, Donald Trump stated that the US is ready to get back to the TPP negotiations provided that the US is offered more acceptable conditions.

There is another possible event that can urge the US to re-enter the TPP, and that event could greatly expand the TPP territory and potential.  It is the possibility of all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) joining the TPP. As we mentioned earlier, the TPP includes such influential ASEAN members as Singapore and Vietnam, as well as Brunei and Malaysia. Thailand and Indonesia express their interest in participation, and they are among the most developed economies in the ASEAN. It is possible that the other members of the bloc would want to join as well.

In March 2018, Sydney hosted the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, in which all the ASEAN member state leaders and prime ministers took part, except for the Philippines (represented by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs). The main topics of discussion were ensuring security and free trade. The ASEAN member states’ participation in the TPP was also discussed.

Australia and the ASEAN have been strategic partners since 2014 and they have cooperated actively on various platforms. The great effort made by Canberra to preserve the TPP project shows that it is very interested in it and probably will work even harder to draw all the other ASEAN members into the TPP.

Thus, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many were ready to scrap after the US withdrawal, has good prospects.  Now, the possibility of the US return to the TPP is increasingly often discussed in the media. However, even if it happens, the US will not play the lead in the Partnership any more. The Partnership is now spearheaded by other countries, which are altering the FTZ Agreement text according to their needs.

In conclusion, we may say that if the TPP was originally designed to unite the US partners, which would support the US hegemony in the APAC, then now it is an independent union of the regional states which are learning to live without Washington telling them what to do.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.