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President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was at least temporarily sidetracked yesterday by a vote in the lower house of Congress. The TPP is a proposed trade and investment pact that would join the United States with eleven other Pacific-fringing nations. Presented as a major part of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, the pact notably excludes China and thus is conventionally considered a sharp poke in the eye for the Chinese.
The trouble is that the pact may not be anti-China at all. Quite the contrary, the chances are that it has been drafted so China can not only later join by the backdoor but quickly seize control. Such an inference is suggested by the fact that as with much trade legislation the details seem to be being drafted by Washington’s notoriously cynical trade lobby. We don’t know for sure because of the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the negotiations. Even senators and congressmen, whose approval will be necessary before any final deal might become law, have been severely restricted in access to drafts and are subject to draconian gag orders. (The vote yesterday was not about the pact itself but about enabling legislation.)
How could an anti-China pact become a pro-China one? Simple. The key is the procedure for expanding it. It is clear that the existing partners are expected to form merely a core group that, like the original six members of the Common Market in Europe, will induct new members as the years go by. In the EU, unanimity among existing members has been required before a new member has been admitted, thus each individual member has enjoyed a veto on the group’s future expansion. Will the TPP require similar unanimity?
To put this more pointedly, will the United States enjoy a veto on the admission of China? Probably not. Though no reliable information seems to be available, a fair guess is that only a simple majority among existing members will be required to admit a new member. Besides the United States, the proposed initial members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
The Obama administration may consider a simple majority enough. After all, most of America’s eleven partners are as antipathetic to China as the United States is – or so the White House undoubtedly assumes.
The trouble is that in matters of high policymaking assumptions are never enough – and nowhere is this more valid than in the case of East Asia. For those who are keeping score, America’s progress – or lack of it – in East Asia over the post-World War II era has been littered with false assumptions.
American policymakers are chronically incapable of seeing the world from any viewpoint except their own. It is past time they tried to imagine how the United States is viewed in East Asia. To say the least American power seems to East Asians to be past its sell-by date. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the United States is perceived as suffering from the nation-state equivalent of dementia.
This is most obvious in America’s increasing militarism. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Washington has for years been borrowing from China to save the world from China. Even if this seems like a sustainable strategy in Washington, there is not a single intelligently run Pacific nation that concurs.
Assuming the TPP gets off the ground, it can be expected to be run uncontroversially for five to ten years. After that, it will be only a matter of time before China knocks on the door. Virtually without exception, the original members will find reasons to defer to the dragon. The eagle’s days are numbered.