By Li Haidong
Six departing US ambassadors in Asia, including Max Baucus, the ambassador to China, recently wrote to the US Congress in their last-ditch plea to call for continued support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that concerns the US “credibility as a trade partner and a leader” in the Asia-Pacific region. There is a slim possibility that President Donald Trump will review the ambassadors’ request and adjust his stern opposition to the TPP.
Admit it or not, in the face of drastic changes in the US’ Asia-Pacific policy, even those experienced and capable ambassadors are falling behind the times and having difficulties understanding what’s going on in the world.
For starters, as the TPP goes against the Asia-Pacific economic integration, it deserves to be laid aside or abandoned. Washington’s attitude toward the integration depends on whether it helps the US maintain its leadership in Asia.
In the first decade following the end of the Cold War, the US fully led and drove the regional integration. But in the next decade, it began diverting its focus from the integration to leading the global anti-terror operations. During this period, the East Asian community was strengthened by the creation of ASEAN-centered multilateral economic and security mechanisms.
In the third decade after the Cold War, the US realized that the economic integration of East Asia isn’t necessarily conducive to its supremacy in the region.
The Obama administration promoted the TPP relentlessly more to hamper and tear apart the Asia-Pacific regional integration than to forge a multilateral trade mechanism with higher standards. This disguised intention makes the TPP setback a result not unexpected. Yet some US ambassadors pretend not to, or perhaps fail to, realize the inconvenient truth.
In addition, the US self-granted leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, which seems deeply rooted in the six ambassadors’ mind, has built itself upon breaking up the unity of the Asia-Pacific economy and security.
Washington strengthens its bilateral alliances in the region, which are strongly exclusive, by creating and fuelling regional tensions. And the TPP has kept out a slew of Asia-Pacific countries and created a concept from which only its members will benefit.
In other words, both US alliances and the TPP pact have brought to the Asia-Pacific lasting disputes and division, instead of peace and prosperity. Hence, the US leadership is rejected by many countries and loses its legitimacy. Yet US ambassadors have forgotten to put themselves in others’ shoes.
The six ambassadors were worried about the US ceding its leadership in regional trade to China, but they don’t understand that it is ASEAN, not China, that stands at the core of Asia-Pacific free trade. For the ambassadors, building trade pacts in the region is an exclusive process; therefore, the TPP has to compete with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for dominance in the regional economy. They thought that the RCEP demonstrates China’s leadership and clout in the process.
Unfortunately, they have ignored the inclusive and mutually beneficial nature of economic integration in the region and misunderstood ASEAN’s central role. The RCEP fully supports ASEAN and has been open to countries in and outside the region, which China embraces.
Nonetheless, the ambassadors tend to deem every arrangement that can benefit China as an attempt to eclipse US leadership, which actually implies their loss of confidence in their own country.
What’s behind the sentiments shown in the letter is the fact that the US under Trump must swiftly adapt to a multipolar world. Based on their rhetoric, Trump and his team have made serious misjudgments about the situation in and outside the US. Their plans to levy high tariffs and adopt trade protectionism go against the trend of globalization. They blame the lackluster economy and high unemployment rate in the US on countries like China.
In fact, trading with China has assisted the US economic recovery and employment, and US problems are brought about by technological development, not the bilateral trade. Accusing other countries for the US’ problems will only isolate the country from the rest of the world.
What Trump took over is a country that has wide rifts in political, economic, social and cultural fronts, and it’s difficult for the new president to reverse the country’s decay. The US will have to learn to adjust to the multipolar world.
The six ambassadors departed from their posts a short time ago. If Trump’s mentality and policies deviate from the global economic trend, he will also be leaving his post in the near future.
[The author is a professor with the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University. [email protected]]