With no US, chance for other leaders to bring TPP-11 to a deal in November

As the United States abdicates its leadership role in establishing a regional trade framework in the Asia-Pacific, the expectation is that China should, and will, pick up that mantle.

But today, neither China nor the US provides the direction needed to create a regional trade agreement that addresses 21st-century issues affecting goods, services and investments, while providing protections for workers and the environment.

The US President's 2017 Trade Policy Agenda's guiding principle is to "expand trade in a way that is freer and fairer for all Americans" by focusing on bilateral negotiations as opposed to multi-party ones.

In alignment with this policy, one of the first actions of President Donald Trump was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP. The pact brings together 12 countries around the Pacific Ocean that together represent 40 per cent of the world's economic output, in an agreement to deepen economic ties, slash tariffs and foster trade to boost growth.

On the other side of the Pacific, "Made in China 2025", the country's 10-year plan to boost innovation in 10 strategic sectors, has been described by the US Chamber of Commerce as "global ambitions built on local protections". This plan favours domestic Chinese companies over foreign ones in targeted sectors.

Signalling a shift away from multilateralism, the world's top two economic powers are wedded to agendas that put their own nation's economic interest foremost, without regard to the interests of their trading partners.

So if the remaining 11 TPP parties still hope to see an ambitious outcome that is a win-win to all, they will have to look to remaining partners like Australia, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam.

In today's era of growing nationalism and populism, it will be no easy task to continue momentum on a major trade deal to create a sustainable framework for trade. An opportunity presents itself this week, with senior officials from the 11 countries meeting in Sydney to hammer out a deal that can be ready by November.

Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, who has been engaging other trade ministers, said there was a broad desire to bring a deal into force at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Economic Leaders' Meeting in Vietnam in November.

Apart from Australia which is hosting this week's talks, Vietnam, as this year's Apec chair, has the opportunity to exercise leadership to have the TPP finalised this year.

The TPP as negotiated provides the foundation for implementing the high standards needed to further economic growth and development in the Asia-Pacific region and represents the future of sustainable international trade.

The TPP will simplify trade, support investment, facilitate the internationalisation of small and medium-sized enterprises, and instil market confidence.

As Mr Dwight Hutchins, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore, has stated, "Singapore serves as America's business headquarters for Asia".

While the TPP-11 will be a smaller agreement in that countries will no longer enjoy enhanced US market access, it is still an important agreement as it maintains important trade rules that are necessary for 21st-century businesses; rules that are more high-standard and ambitious than those of any other regional trade agreement.

Those of us representing US business interests in Singapore see first-hand the many competing frameworks for creating the architecture for trade in the region, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and various other agreements involving Asean. It is one reason why AmCham Singapore continues to maintain a TPP task force.

The TPP is, by far, the best and most strategic trade framework from a business perspective - even without the US government in it - as the high-standard elements within it are supportive of all businesses. This agreement provides duty-free access to its members for all manufactured goods and dramatically opens up opportunities for the flows of the services and investment sectors.

It enhances protections for intellectual property rights, promotes cross-border data flows, ensures fair competition by state-owned enterprises and provides new opportunities for many government procurement contracts. Beyond any other trade agreement, it includes unprecedented protections for the environment and labour.

Bilateral agreements are an important part of any country's trade policy; multi-party agreements are equally critical, if not more so. One of the greatest deterrents to exporting, especially by smaller companies, is the complexity of different trade and regulatory rules for every market. Bilateral trade deals are good at opening markets one at a time, but regional trade deals are more effective in enabling exports to multiple markets.

Rules of origin in multi-party agreements also support integrated sourcing critical to the development of global value chains based on the best in the Asia-Pacific region.

Getting the TPP across the finish line will not be easy - even less so without the US. The balance achieved in the TPP was that certain countries would take the difficult but needed steps to reform their own markets to gain greater access to the US.

Now, the upside of the TPP is not as great. While the TPP-11 will be a smaller agreement in that countries will no longer enjoy enhanced US market access, it is still an important agreement as it maintains important trade rules that are necessary for 21st-century businesses; rules that are more high-standard and ambitious than those of any other regional trade agreement.

Like any trade agreement, the TPP is not perfect from any individual perspective. Still, a multi-party agreement based on the principles established within the TPP is the type of trade agreement needed in the 21st century. This needs to come into effect - no matter who is leading the charge.


  • Steven R. Okun is founder and CEO of APAC Advisors, a public affairs consultancy based in Singapore. He also serves as chairman of the AmCham Singapore TPP Task Force.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'With no US, chance for other leaders to bring TPP-11 to a deal in November'. Print Edition | Subscribe