Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton didn’t agree on much during the 2016 campaign, but they did agree that the U.S. should not participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I read this as a sign that the U.S. should stay in the TPP.
That’s not why I favored staying in, though. Nor was my opinion based on the virtues of free trade. It’s possible to be a free trader and still believe that a particular deal should be rejected.
I favored staying in the TPP as a means of countering China. As Sen. Ben Sasse says:
The best thing the United States can do to push back against Chinese cheating now is to lead the other eleven Pacific nations that believe in free trade and the rule of law.
In other words, the TPP isn’t a garden variety trade agreement, it’s also a geopolitical tool. As such, it shouldn’t be rejected just because our friends and our non-adversaries in the deal might come out a little ahead of us. (Candidate Trump denounced the TPP as “a rape of our country.” However, Ramesh Ponnuru reminds us that Trump never specified what provisions of the agreement he found objectionable).
We should keep our eye on the ball — on China. Our trade disputes with the Chinese are qualitatively different than those with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, etc. China is waging full-scale war against key U.S. industries. Winning that war is far more important than “winning” a trade deal with regional allies.
Suddenly, President Trump seems to agree, or at least to understand the logic. He has ordered his administration to examine rejoining the TPP.
Clearly, this move is a response to China, with whom he is engaged in a “cold” trade war. The question is whether Trump is serious about rejoining the TPP or is just using the threat of doing so as a means of gaining leverage with the Chinese.
I don’t know. I do know that rejoining the TPP would be quite complicated. The eleven nations with whom we were set to partner have gone ahead with a deal — one that differs somewhat from the original one. For example, the new deal would eliminate some provisions in the original, including certain intellectual property protections the U.S. had insisted on.
The U.S. presumably would have to pay a price for rejoining. Trump might also have to pay a political price with the constituencies he riled up with his anti-TPP rhetoric, especially with those constituencies that would lose under the TPP. All trade agreements produce some losers.
Democrats eyeing a run for the presidency probably hope Trump will rejoin. Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the TPP was likely driven by her desire not to be outflanked by Bernie Sanders, a TPP opponent. The leftist who ends up running against Trump in 2020 will likely adopt the Sanders line.
For these reasons, even if Trump is serious at this moment about rejoining the TPP, it seems more likely than not that it won’t happen.