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Japan in the Driver’s Seat? Reshaping the Regional Trade Order without the United States
Author: T.J. Pempel
Published August 3, 2018
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On January 28, 2018 representatives from eleven countries, following the strong leadership of Japan, agreed to a modified version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This new pact —renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP), or TPP-11—was formally signed in Chile on March 8. The treaty will take effect once ratified by at least six member countries. Japan is planning to push the treaty through the Diet within 2018 and anticipating that it will come into force sometime in 2019. The agreement represented a major recovery by the eleven countries following initial expectations that TPP was dead after the election of Donald Trump.

Trump, as an early follow through on his xenophobic and unilateral campaign promises, signed an executive order pulling the United States out of the TPP within one hundred hours of his inauguration. With that stroke of his pen, Trump wiped out 10 years of work on the so-called “Pacific” route to regional trade integration, anchored on the U.S. market. It also defied multiple analyses demonstrating the strong economic benefits that TPP would provide for the United States. Turmoil immediately prevailed among the remaining eleven signatories.

Japanese prime minister Abe, for example, only weeks after Trump’s election announced, “TPP is meaningless without the U.S.” Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong argued, “if the TPP does not go ahead, it would be a great loss for the rest of the member economies.” The National Interest was typical in its skepticism about both the survival of TPP and the long-term implications for the Asia-Pacific. In an article entitled “TPP is Dead; Now What?” it observed: “The United States’ withdrawal not only throws away the potential for a trade agreement but may cause countries that expended significant political capital for the TPP to retreat from free trade for the foreseeable future.” That China will be the primary beneficiary of Trump’s withdrawal was a widespread conclusion.5 In fact, as the signing of the CPTPP indicated, all eleven countries were prepared to recommit themselves to the deal and to continue to advance the goals of a liberal trading order in the region.

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