It’s a good thing for President Obama and supporters of his trade agenda that reporters seem to ignore U.S. Chamber of Commerce material when it debunks one of his main stated rationales for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and fast track negotiating authority.
The President and his trade allies repeatedly have argued that the TPP is needed to ensure that China doesn’t have the field to itself in “shaping the rules of the road” for doing business in the Asia-Pacific region. But recently, the Chamber reported that Mr. Obama is now OK with a China-led effort to engage in that very same rule-writing – its proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). According to the lobby group, “The U.S. government now publicly supports FTAAP, after opposing it earlier.”
I haven’t found official U.S. statements of support for the FTAA. But at last November’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Washington did agree to a Chinese proposal for this group to launch an FTAAP feasibility study (while succeeding in blocking any endorsement of a time-line for the deal). The Chamber’s claim indicates that Mr. Obama’s views of the FTAAP have softened further, and given how multinational corporations dominate the U.S. trade policy advisory system, it’s hard to believe that its assessment is far off base.
In principle, the Obama administration could have warmed to China’s plan in hopes of influencing rule-writing there as well. That’s the Chamber’s take. But if so, then why in Washington’s eyes are both FTAAP and TPP needed? Alternatively, why does the president now seem to believe that America’s rule-writing interests can be served in a trade negotiation that includes China, whereas for months he has insisted (and keeps claiming) that these interests require the rules to be written before China joins? Similarly, how could a finished TPP (without China, at least at first) ensure U.S.-friendly commercial rules for the Pacific Rim when America and most of the other countries involved are working with China to write another set of rules (albeit one that presumably wouldn’t get finished until much later)?
It’s important to note that, even without this FTAAP complication, the American notion of excluding China from an East Asia/Pacific trade zone is a fool’s quest. The region’s manufacturing in particular is too tightly integrated, and China plays too central a role in the system. Moreover, the idea that any of Asia’s main trading powers take seriously the idea of rules even for governing their own countries ignores millennia of history. But unless the Chamber’s report is flat wrong, this FTAAP news is compelling new evidence for a more important proposition – that the next accurate statement the president makes about fast track and TPP will be the first.