A New Deal in Asia

Can RCEP Pick Up Where the TPP Left Off?

A man loots out at the Port of Shanghai from an office building, January 2011. Carlos Barria / Reuters

Since the end of World War II, the foundation of Asia’s prosperity, economic integration, and political stability has been the U.S.-led liberal order. That order took a hit on January 23, when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free trade agreement covering the Asia-Pacific region. 

Leaders of the 11 remaining TPP member states are scrambling to save the agreement, which has been in negotiation for nine years, and on which they have expended significant political capital. The TPP was negotiated as a hub-and-spokes deal, connecting a number of smaller economies to the central hub of the United States. Without U.S. participation, most of the other countries will have relatively little incentive to continue. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted as much after the U.S. election, saying that a “TPP without the United States is meaningless.”

Ministers of TPP members met in Chile on March 14–15 to attempt to craft a post-U.S. TPP strategy, but appear to have made no progress beyond reiterating the importance of the agreement and strengthening the rules-based international trading system. Yet the reality is that the TPP is dead, and it is futile to hope for a revival. The priority in Asia should now be to find other ways to keep markets open and strengthen the liberal order. For a start, Japan and the United States could attempt to salvage something from the TPP’s wreckage through a bilateral trade agreement. Together, Japan and the United States accounted for 79 percent of TPP countries’ total GDP, and such an agreement would also reinforce their military alliance. Abe’s February meeting with Trump laid the groundwork for future negotiations along these lines, with the United States pushing for a bilateral deal while Japan attempted to stall, holding out hope for an eventual resuscitation of the TPP.

Yet a U.S.–Japanese agreement, however beneficial, would do little to secure trade openness in Asia more broadly. Doing so would

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