, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maybe President Obama believes that repeating even the most laughably off-base contentions endlessly will make them true? Or convincing? It’s hard to look at his new Washington Post op-ed urging passage of his Pacific Rim trade deal and conclude anything else. The article makes clearer than ever that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) makes sense for the United States only if Americans ignore everything known about the agreement itself, about U.S. trade with the eleven other signatories, and about the region’s economics and commerce.

The President’s fraudulent case for TPP starts with his first claim – that “some of our greatest economic opportunities abroad are in the Asia-Pacific region.” Trouble is, as I’ve noted, the only truly fast growers on the list of TPP countries are economies like Vietnam and Malaysia, whose growth depends on not only exporting, but on amassing large trade surpluses. They lack both the capabilities and the intention of becoming significant net buyers of U.S.-origin goods and services. Compared with the United States, most of the other TPP countries are growth laggards.

Similarly, Mr. Obama’s description of the proposed TPP zone as representing a whopping 40 percent of the global economy ignores how the American economy represents more than 60 percent of total TPP area output. Moreover, the United States already has negotiated trade deals with many of the largest signatories, notably Australia, Canada, and Mexico. So Americans have long reaped nearly all of whatever benefits the President argues will result from this exercise in trade expansion.

No more credible is Mr. Obama’s insistence that the TPP will benefit America by enabling the United States to influence writing the rules that govern regional commerce rather than permitting Chinese-led arrangements shape this environment.

After all, as critics like Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has pointed out, China already stands to gain from the TPP, thanks to loose origin requirements that permit free or freer trade of goods with high levels of content from non-TPP countries. And since China for decades has been a key node in the multinational production chains that bind together so many Asian economies, much of this non-TPP content will obviously be Chinese.

Further, nothing could be clearer than the determination of the TPP countries to avoid making either-or choices when it comes to rule-writing exercises for East Asian commerce. No less than six TPP signatories – including Australia and New Zealand – have signed up to participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China set up recently in part as a TPP counterweight. And although the largest by far non-U.S. TPP signatory, Japan, has so far declined to bandwagon, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that it has traditionally co-dominated has started working actively with the AIIB. So has the World Bank.

These last two developments, by the way, mean that the United States has also decided to work with the Chinese initiative rather than continuing to oppose it, since Washington plays a major role in both institutions.

And what about the Chinese-initiated regional trade agreements about which Mr. Obama expressed so much alarm? The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership singled out by the president has already attracted seven TPP signatories – including Japan, along with Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly, Mr. Obama didn’t mention a second Chinese regional trade scheme – a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). Maybe that’s because he’s decided to cooperate with Beijing on this front, too, at least to the extent that he approved a study of the proposal under the auspices of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process in which Washington participates.

Finally, the president’s belief that the TPP will greatly boost U.S. exports through enforceable new rules remains a monument to delusion. As I’ve explained, enforcing labor and environmental standards would require an army of American officials to inspect hundreds of thousands of facilities in low-income countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. Who’s going to pay for these personnel? And that’s not even including the vast manufacturing complex that’s been created in Mexico since it joined a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) more than twenty years ago, and in which evidence abounds such provisions remain overwhelmingly ineffective.  (Hence, largely, the president’s insistence that “this time, it will be different” in TPP.)  

As for the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) whose trade-distorting activities TPP will supposedly curb, how will U.S. officials gain access to these notoriously secretive constructs and their financial records? Moreover, since low (at best) labor and environmental standards along with opaque SOEs are keys to competitiveness throughout Asia, why would the region’s TPP signatories give Washington the power to weaken these arrangements through dispute-resolution hearings?

President Obama writes that the alternative to Congress passing the TPP is “building walls to isolate ourselves from the global economy.” That’s the most pernicious trade policy and TPP myth of all. The real alternative is developing trade policies based on global economic realities, not his own fantasies about the power of mere pen strokes.