JUN 01 2018

Commentary: USA to Re-Enter TPP but Only If It Calls the Shots

World Economy

When Donald Trump decided to pull the USA out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017, it was a huge setback for the remaining 11 countries – we wrote about it in our article TPP 2.0 – Minus the USA in May 2017. However, after months of discussions and deliberations, the surviving members (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) planned to move the partnership ahead without the USA, finally signing the pact in March 2018 and naming it Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Soon after, while in talks over another bilateral trade deal with Japan, Trump said that he would join back TPP, if the USA was offered a deal it cannot refuse. Asserting on the fact that Trump government prefers bilateral trade agreements over multilateral, Trump made it clear, in an indirect manner though, that unless the pact brings massive benefits for the American economy, there is no way the country is joining back the TPP.

American reconsideration of getting back in the TPP is a strategic step to deal with its growing trade war with China. As per the initial outline of the pact, designed under Obama administration, it was supposed to eliminate or reduce tariffs on the ‘Made-in-America’ exports to TPP countries (e.g. automotive, ITC, agriculture products, etc.). However, by backing out of the TPP, Trump government ended up making a rod for its own back, and may have opened doors for China, if it wishes to enter the pact in the future. In order to safeguard its own interest against China, it seems that rejoining the pact would be a smart move on the USA’s part.

But the re-entry to the TPP will not be easy for the USA, and dictating its own terms for getting back into the agreement does not seem to work in favor of the Trump government either. With the member countries just signing their own trade deal very recently, setting terms and conditions for re-negotiating the pact again with the USA would be difficult and cumbersome. While some countries such as, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand appreciated the USA’s interest to return back to TPP, they are not very keen on altering the agreement, and even if the terms were to be amended again, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Despite the fact that the American participation will make the deal stronger, member countries do not trust Trump’s trade policies and USA’s re-consideration of TPP membership again is being viewed with hostility, to a certain extent.

Taking into consideration the fact that the deal already took six years to finalize (five years prior to USA’s exit and one year to amend the agreement after its withdrawal), altering the deal again as per USA’s convenience seems unrealistic. The idea of starting negotiations from square one in order to fit in the USA, might be too much to ask for from the member countries. Now that the USA has lost an upper hand in the TPP, many countries may be in favor of the country joining back only if it accepts the existing agreement, which definitely does not seem to go down well with Trump. However, there is a slight possibility that member countries might be willing to contemplate the terms of the pact, if they are given better access to the American market (e.g. with the reduction in tariff rates), which is also unlikely to happen considering that the USA wants things to be its way.

Now that the trade agreement is already in place sans the USA, the American position to re-negotiate the terms has weakened. If this decision was made earlier, the country would have had a stronger bargaining power. Also, for the CPTPP member countries, unlike for the USA, bringing the existing agreement into force as early as possible is an immediate priority.

At this stage, the future of the USA joining TPP again is a question mark. Though both sides, the USA and the participating member countries, stand to benefit from this move – the member countries would benefit in terms of increased trade and the USA would be able to thwart China from entering the pact and to increase own exports – the current attitude and mindset of both sides seem to make the re-negotiations unlikely, at least under current circumstances. All participating countries are open to the USA re-joining the pact, provided it agrees to the terms originally negotiated, gives up wanting to call the shots, and agrees to mellow down its supremacy inclinations in the pact, none of which can be expected to be happening anytime soon, at least under the Trump administration.