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Vol. 80/No. 46      December 12, 2016

(front page)

Washington’s China ‘pivot’ falters as Asia trade pact dies

President-elect Donald Trump announced Nov. 21 that on his first day in office he will issue notice of Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The trade and regulatory agreement, negotiated with 11 other Pacific governments over the past decade, was touted by outgoing President Barack Obama as a signal achievement of his presidency and a core part of the “pivot” to Asia, which was a hallmark of Washington’s foreign policy for the past five years.

The “pivot,” later renamed a “rebalance,” was a political and military course intended to counter the ascending economic and military weight of China. But Beijing has continued to expand trade and political ties across Asia and the Pacific, further eroding the domination of the region that was one of U.S. imperialism’s main prizes from the slaughter of World War II.

Trump made opposition to the TPP, accompanied by nationalist demagogy, a central plank in his campaign as the Republican presidential candidate. It was also the policy of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Ratification of the pact in Congress already faced opposition among both parties, and within days of the election the White House announced it would not proceed.

The TPP, which excluded China, was an attempt by Washington to assemble a political bloc as a counter to Beijing in the region. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described it as being as “important to me as another aircraft carrier.” Its collapse is a blow to U.S. strength in the region.

The collapse has accelerated moves by many of Washington’s Pacific allies to finalize an alternative regional trade agreement with Beijing. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership includes the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and China.

Beijing has also been pushing for adoption of a trade agreement among the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, an association of Pacific rim countries, which met in Peru Nov. 19-20. A number of APEC governments in Latin America are now looking to join the RCEP.

Last year, Beijing launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Against Washington’s opposition, 57 governments signed on, including most U.S. allies except Tokyo. Beijing is already expanding trade and investment with countries across Asia and the Pacific.

Conflicts over the composition of regional trade blocs are primarily about political and military alliances, not trade. There are already 147 “free trade” agreements among countries in Asia, with 68 more under negotiation. The TPP was intended to ensure that Washington “called the shots” in Asia, as Obama put it, and not Beijing.

As part of the “pivot” to counter China, the Obama administration had planned to shift the weight of the U.S. armed forces to the Pacific, opening new bases, increasing military exercises in the region and positioning 60 percent of its naval warships there by 2020.

But this was premised on the winding down of U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, these conflicts have intensified, as has Washington’s military involvement there and in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere. Although maintaining the overwhelming supremacy it has held for decades, Washington’s military and naval power in the Pacific has continued to diminish, even as Beijing expands its military buildup in the South China Sea.

This shifting weight was reflected in the Philippines, a former colony and ally, following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in May. He announced a scaling down of military ties to Washington and withdrew from U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea.

During his campaign for president, Trump lambasted the TPP as a “disaster” that would mean job losses in the U.S. He attacked “jobs theft” by Asian countries and singled out China as “the No. 1 abuser,” saying, “They suck the blood out of us and we owe them money.” He urged the use of U.S. “economic power” and hefty import tariffs against competition by Chinese imports.

Trump called on the governments of Japan and South Korea to do more to beef up their armed forces and said they should “pay up” for U.S. military bases in those countries. He said he would increase the size of the U.S. military.

“A strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia,” said Trump’s campaign website. But a senior defense adviser to Trump, former CIA head James Woolsey, in a Nov. 10 opinion piece in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, said he anticipated a “much warmer” response from the new administration to China’s regional economic initiatives and said Obama’s refusal to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank had been a “strategic mistake.”

“We understand China’s desire to reform global institutions” to reflect its greater economic and military weight, Woolsey said.  
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