Allies and partners of the United States in the Pacific are pressing American President-elect Donald Trump to renege on his pledge to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on free trade and, more in general, keep the superpower committed to the region. This exhortation sounds perfectly logical from nations like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, which heavily rely on Washington’s regional engagement and protection. But also an ever more confrontational China ultimately appears to recognize the value of the US leadership (or, better yet, “co-leadership”) on global trade.
In a December 15 article, which argued for Beijing’s participation in a revised TPP platform, the mainland’s state-run Global Times wrote that “China does not want to see Washington pursuing trade protectionism under the Trump administration”, as the global economy would need the US contribution to thrive. Usually on hawkish and nationalistic positions, the Global Times is often used by the Chinese diplomatic and security complex to convey abroad what government and Communist Party officials cannot openly say; in this case that a possible US disengagement from Asia-Pacific may not translate automatically into an advantage for the Communist dragon.
Trump maintains that the TPP, the economic component of outgoing US President Barack Obama’s pivot/rebalance to Asia, will be replaced by bilateral free trade agreements, which in his view best serve the American national interest. But these separate commercial deals are by definition less “network building” than a multilateral framework; the TPP would in fact have the merit of fostering an American-led system of diplomatic and strategic relations in Asia-Pacific.
Thus, in this respect, Trump’s rejection of the TPP could lead to a geopolitical vacuum in East Asia, which China is expected to fill; an outcome that is possible, but hardly inevitable.
The League of Nations’ precedent
If Trump truly were to pull out of the trade deal once in office, it would feel like diplomatic deja vu. Washington walked away from a major multilateral project that it had previously championed as early as 100 years ago. In 1919, in fact, the US Senate voted the country’s accession to the League of Nations down. An international body to prevent conflicts and maintain peace after the carnage of the 1914-1918 Great War, the League of Nations had been advanced by then US President Woodrow Wilson during the Paris Peace Conference.
Washington’s disentanglement from the League of Nations left the post-WWI international order in shambles. Declining powers like Britain and France tried to act as US surrogates within that organization, but they eventually failed, paving the way for the rise of Nazi Germany and a new, fiercer global conflict.
Contrary to London and Paris between the two world wars, China is now on a rising trajectory and, to a certain extent, geared to assert and manage a sort of Pax Sinica in the Pacific Rim should Washington reduce its footprint there. The problem for Beijing is that the other nations in the region are wary of its growing might. As the US traditional regional allies want the American defense umbrella to be kept fully in place, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hope in large part that America will keep playing a balancing role against China and there is no devastating conflict between them.
Multilateralism still an option
Most of Asian-Pacific countries know well that they could be caught in the middle of a Sino-American strategic confrontation. Hence, they are alarmed at the prospect that the Trump administration may look to the US standing in East Asia only through the prism of military strength. Peace through commerce is still a valuable asset in the great nations’ power play and remains the best option for business-focus states across the area.
Washington’s exit from the TPP will not probably result in its complete retreat from Asia, just like its dismissal of the League of Nations did not determine an all-out refusal of multilateral engagement. In this sense, the Washington Naval Conference from November 1921 to February 1922 set a precedent. As a result of that initiative, which was pushed by then isolationist-leaning US President Warren G. Harding, America and the other great nations defined an East Asian balance of power capable of limiting Japan’s military aggressiveness for nearly a decade – up until the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 and the ensuing real retrenchment of Washington from the world stage in the 1930s.
It looks rather unlikely that Trump will unravel the current US defense fabric in the Western Pacific. Now to see if “The Donald” will grasp that a fair dose of multilateralism would provide his country with cheaper and more durable solutions for Asia’s numerous challenges than mere military muscle-flexing.
A new “code of geopolitical conduct” regulating the interaction between the established superpower and the rising contender could be indeed needed in the Pacific space. There is no way Washington and Beijing are going to define it on their own – they will have to compromise in step with the other relevant regional actors. It seems that the Chinese are mindful of it, unlike the White House’s incoming tenant.