The Platform


When the Obama administration declared a pivot to the East about a decade ago, one of the impetuses for this decision had been to integrate China more comprehensively into the U.S.-centric world economy. Today, under the Biden administration, the focus is again on East Asia but this time through a more confrontational lens. In such a context, it is time to bring back the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Besides being another economic tool that the U.S. can use against China, it could also provide breathing space for those toiling underneath Beijing’s domineering presence in the Pacific region. America’s current domestic policies could also mitigate some of the negative consequences of such a deal.

The basis for the TPP was the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement between Brunei, Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand. The U.S. started showing interest in this grouping in 2008, and others such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and Vietnam, soon joined discussions. Some argue that the U.S. feared trade diversion if it did not join free trade agreements dotting Asia. Others suspect the U.S. announced its interest to shift attention from its wars in the Middle East.

When the deal was signed in 2016, it had 12 signatories including the U.S., represented by the Obama administration. But its signing created a storm in Washington and the next year, Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP. The rest of the eleven nations decided to go ahead and they formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Calling it a “horrible deal,” Trump believed the Trans-Pacific Partnership would take manufacturing and service jobs out of the U.S. to developing nations where labour is cheaper. Yet the deal would have led to American goods and investments flooding the markets of these nations, reduction in consumer prices domestically, market liberalisation, and establishment of Western labour and environmental standards in all participatory countries. This was supposed to be the trade-off. Now with U.S. President Joe Biden’s economic stimulus, it need not be that great an opportunity cost.

Tariffs are not the only way to improve America’s domestic prospects. Biden’s infrastructural plan can boost domestic production without having to compromise on higher wages to prevent the loss of jobs. The government can provide rewards to private players and also invest in different projects. While frowned upon, subsidies are not as obvious as tariffs.

Biden seems to have two agendas: reviving the U.S. economy and combating China. The TPP provides an opportunity to hit two birds with one stone if Biden carries out his infrastructural plan efficiently. It also depends on his willingness to not be bound by unionism and to not let the nation fall back into the clutches of protectionism.

The TPP will also give flight to Biden’s hopes to bring about a global minimum tax. Though it is a G7 led initiative, it won’t work without the support of developing countries. The TPP could be one of the several treaties which will bind countries to this standard.

At the end of the day, it is not only an economic but also a political decision. Japan had to overcome its farming lobby to comply with the agreement. As predicted, the country faced a decrease in agricultural output through the TPP. But it was motivated by its rivalry with China. Today, Washington has also re-oriented its priorities to reflect the growing conflict with Beijing. Biden’s policies seemingly hope to end U.S. isolation while giving it new purposes away from blundering campaigns in the Middle East. The TPP would sit comfortably within this agenda.

The deal would also help amplify the position of American allies such as Japan who have differing views from that of China on how to model East Asian and Southeast Asian economies. There are also options for non-Pacific allies such as the UK to join.

Additionally, the TPP is about making a statement. Separate bilateral treaties might get the U.S. better deals but a multilateral initiative has the legitimacy and the ability to block China. The Western edge of the Pacific has emerged as a conflict-prone zone with China aggressively claiming its surrounding regions. While being an economic deal, the TPP also has the opportunity to bring members together politically to combat this issue.

There might still be complications. Many believe that the TPP, despite excluding Beijing would act as a backdoor to cheap Chinese exports which might reach the U.S. through repackaging in other TPP countries. But the only option left after rejecting such deals seems to be a degeneration back to protectionism. China will keep on rising whether the U.S. decides to be protectionist and isolationist or not. China already dominates Asia with its Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The TPP offers the U.S. a chance to increase its presence in the current geopolitical atmosphere. And along with Biden’s infrastructural plan, the U.S. might gain more than it will lose.

Aswathy Koonampilly is a postgraduate student in International Relations. Her interests include geopolitics, theories, and how culture and similar intangible forces shape global affairs.