The TPP and the 'Asia Pivot'

US entry into the TPP negotiations in 2008 fundamentally changed the nature and purpose of the agreement. The original TPSEP was an agreement between four small, open, trading states. After the election of Barack Obama, the USA sought to reinsert itself into the Asia-Pacific region, and thus the new aim for the TPP was to broaden it across the region. The move was part of an attempt to rebuff Asian talk of US ‘decline’ following almost a decade mired in seemingly unwinnable conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. By 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had announced that the USA was pivoting to Asia as part of ‘America’s Pacific Century’.[1] The unstated target of this pivot was China, whose increasing economic and military power was causing - and continues to cause - alarm in Washington. The ‘Asia pivot’ is fundamentally about reasserting US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and contains many planks, from maintaining freedom of navigation to the creation of new alliances and the deepening of old ones. But given China’s phenomenal economic growth and increasing economic power, containing China militarily is only one aspect of the pivot: maintaining the US-led neoliberal trade order is where the TPP comes in. Key US policymakers have made this very clear. As mentioned earlier, Ashton Carter stated that ‘passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier’, while Ely Ratner, a former China-hand at the State department, and Kurt Campbell, former Secretary of State for East Asia and influential Japan-hand, called it a ‘cardinal priority’ in terms of the pivot.[2] Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Leader, stated that enabling the TPP would send America’s allies the message that ‘we understand they [the allies] are somewhat wary about Chinese commercial and potentially military domination.’[3]

The TPP will define future trade rules in the region according to the preferences of the most influential states in the negotiation: which primarily means the USA. It will (re)integrate the USA into the Asia- Pacific region and, since China is not included, it will be marginalized. Estimates of the costs of the TPP to China vary widely, from 47 billion dollars annually up to as much as 100 billion.[4] Michael Auslin, US analyst and TPP supporter, put it in very simple terms: ‘tilt the outcomes of Asian regionalism towards US interests ... [and] the prevention of a trade order that is dominated by China’.[5] [6] Indeed, the political nature of the TPP seems obvious, but is frequently over-looked by both scholars and the media alike. Time and again scholars and journalists uncritically reproduce statements along the lines of ‘China needs to reform in order to meet the “high standards” of the TPP in areas such as state procurement and intellectual property rights’.2

Moreover, the Vietnamese economy is considered ready for the partnership, but the Chinese economy is not — neither is the much more advanced Taiwanese, as the USA wants to contain China, but not overly aggravate it! Conversely, much is made by pro-TPP scholars and commentators of the environmental and labour protection measures in the agreement, without interrogating how states like Vietnam, Brunei, and perhaps soon Indonesia, will enforce them. For example, Vietnam outlaws independent labour unions, while corruption and incompetence in Indonesia contribute to the annual air pollution haze, a lethal and widespread annual phenomenon which plagues the region.

Japan’s accession to the TPP comes at a crucial moment for the Japan- US alliance and Japan’s security policy in East Asia. From 2009 to 2010, the new Democratic Party of Japan government attempted its own ‘Asia Pivot’, seeking to strengthen relations with China and South Korea while making the Japan-US relationship more ‘equal’.[7] A pledge to remove a major US base from the southern prefecture of Okinawa became a key issue in Japan-US relations, to the extent that there was talk of a major ‘crisis’. Although the policies themselves had the support of the majority of the Japanese people, their poor execution, together with the USA and domestic bureaucratic resistance led to their failure.[8] The new administration was toppled after less than a year. Meanwhile, relations with China plunged to a nadir in the aftermath of flare-ups in 2010 and 2012 in the fractious East China Sea territorial and maritime dispute.

While the new DPJ leaders in Tokyo worried about alliance drift and even abandonment by the USA, the Abe administration saw this as an opportunity to push its own security reforms, which could be framed as a necessary result of beiatsu or US pressure. Demonstrating Japan’s commitment to the alliance would reassure both Washington and the Japanese people. At the same time, Washington saw Japan’s inclusion in the TPP as crucial and stepped up the pressure on Japan to join. A typical statement of the US perspective: ‘Tokyo’s successful participation in the TPP is, rightfully or wrongly, a test of how much Japan will remain at the centre of US Asia policy in the coming decades’.[9] The same author wrote that ‘if Japan’s government is not willing to make commitments to strengthening the liberal, democratic order in Asia, then the United States will be forced to become closer to nations that have no such hesitation’.[10] This is a familiar form of US rhetoric: appealing to the ‘liberal, democratic order in Asia’ via participation in an agreement that includes an absolutist monarchy and Islamic Sultanate (Brunei) as well as an authoritarian one-party communist state (Vietnam), while not including the only actual liberal democracies in the region apart from Japan: South Korea and Taiwan.

The pressure to join the TPP was part of a broader push to lock Japan into the US side of the growing gulf between China and the US, as Washington sought increased Japanese military spending and reduced institutional restrictions on military deployment - which happens to correlate with Abe’s own security policy.[11] In the words of one alliance manager, spending increases ‘send a very important signal to Washington that Japan is serious about meeting its own defence responsibility under the security alliance with the United States’.[12] Abe’s signing up to the TPP can be seen as part of a broader geopolitical shift which includes the notion of ‘proactive pacifism’ and the reinterpretation of the constitution to enable collective self-defence.[13] Abe even used Washington’s own language on the day he announced Japan’s participation in the agreement: ‘Japan must remain at the centre of the Asian-Pacific century [... ]. This is our last chance [... ]. If we don’t seize it, Japan will be left out.’[14]

  • [1] Clinton, ‘America’s Pacific Century.
  • [2] Campbell and Ratner, ‘Far Eastern Promises’.
  • [3] Kobayashi, ‘TPP’s Fate Rests with Japan, US’.
  • [4] 0 The 47 billion claim comes from the Petersen Institute, as cited in Vanderklippe, ‘TPP Deal aWay for US to Reassert Primacy over China’; the 100 billion comes from Davis, ‘US Blocks ChinaEfforts to Promote Asia Trade Pact’.
  • [5] Auslin. ‘Getting It Right’.
  • [6] For example, Itakura and Lee, ‘The Implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Japan’.
  • [7] O’Shea, ‘Overestimating the “Power Shift”’.
  • [8] Ibid. See also Hughes, ‘The Democratic Party’.
  • [9] Auslin, ‘Getting it Right’, 29.
  • [10] Ibid, 29.
  • [11] O’Shea, ‘The East China Sea Maritime and Territorial Dispute’.
  • [12] Quoted in Mie, Ayako, ‘Stop Foot-Dragging on China’s Threat: Maher’.
  • [13] Maslow, ‘A Blueprint for a Strong Japan’.
  • [14] Quoted in Hiroko Tabuchi, ‘Japan Moves to Enter Talks on Pacific Trade’.
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