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Politicizing the TPP

Aug 12 , 2015
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

The 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership members ended the latest round of a five-year marathon negotiation on July 31 in Maui, Hawaii, but failed to settle their differences on such issues as intellectual property and the agricultural-products market, though the gaps were closing.

Bringing the TPP talks to a perfect conclusion is what the Obama administration most hopes for at the moment. The TPP agreement may be reached in the remaining months of this year or, at the latest, by the end of next year when President Barack Obama will serve out his term, as there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. The two largest obstacles to the talks’ progress – the US Congress’ objections and the American-Japanese deadlock in farm-products negotiations – have seen dramatic changes. The former are basically settled and the latter has witnessed substantial progress.

Originally known as “Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership,” the TPP was launched by Chile, Brunei, Singapore and New Zealand in 2005. A free-trade agreement was signed and took effect. The United States joined the partnership in 2008 and began to dominate the negotiations for membership expansion and a new agreement. The US succeeded in having Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Peru and Mexico join the organization.

Washington tries to be the game rules maker. It introduced the concept of absolute free trade into the negotiations, arguing that the members should abandon the traditional mode of free trade and turn the TPP into a high-caliber, all-round model of free trade agreement that can meet the challenges of the 21st century. It wants to include in the agreement such things as labor policy, environment protection, intellectual property, disputes settling mechanism on investment and government procurement principles including those on infrastructure construction.

Such high standards and too wide a range of contents caused great controversies among member countries. That’s why the negotiations have been protracted for so long. If reached successfully, the agreement will be a compromised result of the members with a balance between interests and yielding but it will still be a product of Washington’s ideas. And it will be a significant political legacy of Obama.

The US’s eagerness to conclude the TPP agreement has grown out of its concerns about the current political and economic changes in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in East Asia. As the world’s largest, fastest-growing and most promising market, East Asia has risen to be a major global economic center, while the US’s influence in the region has declined with a dwindling market share, smaller than that of China. Free-trade zones sprang up vigorously among East Asian countries, with the China-ASEAN free-trade area being the most successful. The US is outside of all of these areas. To reverse the situation, the US energetically promotes the TPP, trying to attain three goals: crack open the East Asian market to find a foothold for its plan of “doubling the exports”, control the process of the Asia-Pacific economic integration so as to protect its geopolitical, economic and security interests, and grasp the right to set the rules for global trade in the 21st century.


To attain these aims, the US even made sacrifices in certain important matters. For instance, it made the most concessions in the negotiations and was particularly attentive to the needs of developing countries such as Vietnam. A 2014 study conducted by an authoritative institution indicates that by 2025, the US’s post-TPP national revenue will be only 0.4 percent higher than before while Vietnam will see 14-percent growth.

The economic gains the US will make from the TPP may well prove far from matching the political, economic and diplomatic resources it has invested in promoting the trans-Pacific free-trade mechanism. This fact indicates that Washington’s main interest is not in economy but rather in political and strategic concerns. Its purpose is to take a commanding position in the Asia-Pacific regional integration to re-establish its dominance in this vital strategic area and then re-inforce its status as the sole superpower in the world.

More importantly, a successful conclusion of the TPP will greatly enhance Washington’s “return to Asia” strategy, which is mainly targeted at containing China. By involving its Asian allies Japan and Vietnam, both of which have territorial disputes with China, in the TPP, the US obviously hopes to form a united front against China. It’s no wonder that some media outlets call TPP an “economic NATO”. Washington’s attempt to include the government-procurement principle in the items of the TPP agreement obviously has the purpose of impeding the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Obama said not long ago that “if we cannot set the rules for the global trade, China will.” That remark laid bare Washington’s true intention in yielding major economic interests to other member countries in the TPP negotiations. The intention is to contain China.

The protraction of the TPP negotiations should prompt the US to reflect upon itself. Not inviting China to join the TPP is actually shutting the door to it. Meanwhile, the move to politicize the organization to make it a tool to contain China is even more mistaken, for it will only serve to cause losses to China and the TPP as well as to the US itself. Changing its policy of containing China is the only wise choice for the US.

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