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Straw that Breaks the Camel's Back: The Repercussions of TPP's Failure on American Strategic Interests in East Asia

By Jia Yao Kuek ‘19

· Jia Yao Kuek

The recent election of Donald Trump as America’s next president has triggered widespread uncertainty in the international community regarding America’s future economic and foreign policy direction. Specifically, given Trump’s strident protectionist rhetoric over the course of his campaign, his victory almost certainly sounds the death knell for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free-trade agreement designed to be the economic pillar of President Obama’s oft touted ‘Rebalance to Asia’. In this article, I explore the significance of the TPP, and my opinions on how President-elect Trump’s strong isolationist stance presents an unrealistic mindset towards American foreign policy.

The narrative of American exceptionalism is defined by fundamental principles of democracy, equality, and freedom. In the foreign policy arena, these precepts are reflected in America’s leadership of a liberal international system, with a rules-based global order. Ultimately, these ethical foreign policy priorities go hand in glove with free trade and economic liberalization, finding form in Immanuel Kant’s triangle of peace – international organizations, economic interdependence, and democracy.

Leaving its partners and allies bereft of the economic benefits accompanying a reengaged rebalance to Asia (by discarding the TPP) relinquishes one of America’s foreign policy’s most crucial tools. Like a tiger without any teeth, American credibility will suffer and its allies will put less faith in America's commitment to the region. It is often said that China's presence in East and Southeast Asia is a reality; while America's is a mere strategic calculation. Discarding the TPP will severely test the strength of America’s alliance system in East Asia, and may overshadow any future US attempts to reengage with its regional partners.

In fine-tuning his foreign-policy views, President-elect Trump should not experience the common pitfall of generalizing America’s alliance system in East Asia, as being directed against any one state actor, specifically China. China remains content to leave America’s global military dominance unquestioned, provided it has room to protect its core national interests in its immediate backyard. In this regard, China's foreign policy actions have few of the trappings that America's ethical foreign policy approach brings with it. In January, the state-owned General Nuclear Power Corp purchased assets of Malaysia’s scandal-ridden 1MDB, relieving some of the pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak over the fund’s mounting debts, and standing in stark contrast to the US Justice Department's unwillingness (and inability) to retreat from its investigation of Malaysia's kleptocratic processes. In addition, China’s economy has benefited greatly in recent decades from the global system of free trade, and does not seek to overthrow the existing liberal international order. Indeed, in capitalizing on the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s victory, it has even sought to work within the existing system, by pushing for its own China-led Asia-Pacific free trade deal as an alternative to the TPP: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Furthermore, not without a touch of schadenfreude, China has even warned President-elect Trump that he will be going against global society’s will if he reneges on the US’s participation in the Paris climate agreement. In sum, China remains an unavoidable, key partner of the US in East Asia, along with America’s other regional allies. Trump must manage the uncertainty that his victory has triggered within America’s allies, while formulating a clear idea on how his election rhetoric will actually fit into the realities of a multi-dimensional Sino-US partnership, in the context of a US-led liberal international order.

Ultimately, America must prove that it remains committed to a stable liberal international order, together with its goodwill-building structures and conflict-resolution mechanisms. While Trump's campaign messages reflect a pervasive and resurgent historical isolationist strand in American political thinking, these beliefs are antithetical to the increasingly globalized and interconnected world that we live in. Trump's promises certainly sound enticing; protectionist measures providing an immediate boost to US products, while providing short-term relief for jobs at risk of moving overseas. Nonetheless, this hollowing out of industry is an unavoidable long-term trend if Trump is unwilling to undertake more fundamental changes to improve America’s competitiveness, and the productivity of the American labour force.

In addition, as recent cyber-attacks have shown, there is no way for any one country or society to isolate itself entirely from our world's physically and digitally interconnected networks. Ultimately, I observe an emerging duality of international relations, manifested in both the virtual and physical realms of interaction. From the recent DDOS attacks, to Russia’s clever use of social media in advancing its disinformation agenda, or even through the intelligence sharing partnerships that the US maintains with its allies (such as the Five Eyes); America’s interaction with the global community is irreversibly intertwined with its national security challenges, and core national interests. As such, I see a need for America to reengage with its global network of partnerships and alliances. These efforts hinge upon America successfully convincing its allies that it means business – in the Pacific sphere; this proverbial ‘carrot’ is exemplified by the TPP.

I would like to think that the TPP is by no means finished, even if it remains highly unpalatable to the American electorate in its current form. Even if it were eventually passed in an amended form, however, the difficulties faced in its passage would already have caused ripples of worry around the region.

In conclusion, when contrasting America’s current lack of resolve in East Asia with its commitment to protect US national interests at the height of the Cold War, a recent ‘War on the Rocks’ piece describes how “America’s Cold War threat of nuclear escalation was credible because the issue was plainly and publicly explained by U.S. leaders and evidently accepted by the majority of American voters.” Instead of a bipolar Cold War global configuration, America now faces a multipolar global environment with multifaceted threats. These dynamic, rapidly evolving (and often asymmetric) threat paradigms cut across the political and economic spectrum; the TPP is one crucial leg of a larger US foreign policy picture. In the same way that the threat of nuclear escalation had to be explained to the American public, so does the need for free trade deals such as the TPP have to be communicated to America’s domestic constituency by their political leaders. Using the American public’s worries over their livelihood and jobs as an electoral strategy reflects a potentially myopic view of the core challenges facing the American economy. Despite winning the election against pollsters’ odds, President-elect Trump now faces an even bigger challenge in satisfying his voters, protecting America’s national interests, and ultimately safeguarding its future.

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