For a moment it appeared that geoeconomic and geopolitical rationality had reappeared in the U.S. stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement now binding 11 Pacific nations.
After demagoguing about the proposed pact during his campaign, President Donald Trump signaled last week that he might have his advisers investigate re-entering negotiations to join the agreement (since rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).
But on Tuesday he reversed course again with a tweet.
Trump’s short-lived reconsideration of TPP was in part a response to the long-term impact of a burgeoning trade dispute with China that could hit Midwestern agriculture particularly hard. After all, the TPP’s lower tariffs might mitigate the impact of Chinese tariffs on U.S. exports.
And perhaps the president’s revamped Cabinet might have convinced Trump of the security benefits of binding Asian allies ever closer together as a rising China exerts its territorial ambitions.
That was moot after Trump took to Twitter (where else?) to blurt a reversion to his previous ill-considered position: “While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don’t like the deal for the United States. Too many contingencies and no way to get out of it if it doesn’t work. Bilateral deals are more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers.”
Trump is wrong for several reasons. South Korea is not part of the TPP, but does have a bilateral agreement with the U.S. — which Trump threatened to jettison at the height of the North Korean crisis, reflecting a capriciousness that countries will likely seek to avoid.
Trump would like to bind Japan in a bilateral agreement. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly resisted that during this week’s summit with the president. Perhaps he did so hoping the U.S. would eventually return to the deal initially led by U.S. negotiators, who carefully crafted a pact that would meet more rigorous U.S. standards on labor, environmental protection and intellectual property protection.
In other words, a deal that would truly benefit our workers.
Trump’s inconsistency isn’t new. But the consistency of his contradictions shouldn’t blur how detrimental they are. While Trump sends mixed signals, China is pursuing a consistent, if cynical, model. That includes the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed 10-nation free-trade pact that could become the dominant, if not de facto, Asian trade protocol.
Trump isn’t the only inconsistent politician on TPP. Hillary Clinton disavowed the deal while campaigning for president after advocating for it while serving as secretary of state, a craven reversal that was likely in response to both Trump and Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders.
Democrats should remember former President Barack Obama’s correct claim that TPP was in America’s economic and security interests. Republicans should rediscover their understanding of the link between free trade and free peoples. World trade, and world leadership, awaits.
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