A failure to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a proposed free trade agreement between twelve countries—by the United States Congress would seriously weaken both US economic and security interests in Southeast Asia, according to the Atlantic Council’s Robert Manning.
“A failure to ratify TPP would mark an inflection point for the US role in Asia,” said Manning.
“There is a danger that if US economic involvement in Asia diminishes, the demonstrable benefits of the US strategic role in Asia will diminish and with it, the public’s and Congress’ support for a predominant US security role,” he added.
The proposed trade bloc was borne out of a previous economic agreement between four Pacific states—Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. If implemented, TPP would account for an estimated 40 percent of GDP and one-third of world trade. China is not a signatory member to the Pacific trade deal.
Increased economic integration between the United States and Asia can only help security partnerships in the region, according to Manning.
“Failure to ratify it would be a serious blow to US credibility in Asia, raising doubts about US durability and reliability,” said Manning.
“It would cede the playing field to China, which is pursuing a regional agreement—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—with far lower standards,” he added.
Formal negotiations to establish the RCEP began in 2012. It is considered an alternative trade agreement for the TPP.
On a state visit to the United States on August 2, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong touted the need for a quick resolution to the TPP ratification process.
“We are near the finish line, and we hope that the countries—particularly the United States—will be able to ratify the TPP as soon as possible…In terms of America’s engagement of the region, you have put a reputation on the line,” said Lee in a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House.
A ruling in July by an international tribunal at The Hague that China’s claims to “historic rights” to disputed territories in the South China Sea are unlawful followed the Philippines filing a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration against such Chinese claims. This was considered a major setback for China’s foreign policy efforts in Asia. The South China Sea includes vital trade routes and fishing waters as well as potential oil and mineral deposits.
Following the ruling, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged all involved countries to “fully respect legal and diplomatic processes, exercise self-restraint, and avoid conducting any activities that may raise tensions in the region.”
Manning noted that this type of sentiment is indicative of how Southeast Asian countries walk a fine diplomatic line between supporting the United States or China.
“No nation in Asia wants to be forced to choose between the United States and China. Singapore, like other ASEAN nations, is very careful about trying to balance US and China relationships,” said Manning—referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an intergovernmental diplomatic bloc.
The Obama administration has made diplomatic efforts toward Asia—and in particular, China—a cornerstone of its overall foreign policy strategy. Yet, regional uncertainty remains as China puts more territorial pressure on the South China Sea.
“Obama has made an important effort to underscore the importance of Asia to the United States, and that has been appreciated in the region. But there is concern about the potential of US retreat amid a growing Chinese role,” said Manning.
“In the long run, there is likely to always be some lingering Asia doubt about US durability. It comes with the territory,” he added.
Robert Manning spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Mitch Hulse. Here are excerpts from our interview:
Q: The Singapore-US state visit comes in the wake of a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that China’s claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea are unlawful. Following the ruling on the South China Sea, Singapore has urged all parties to “fully respect legal and diplomatic processes, exercise self-restraint, and avoid conducting any activities that may raise tensions in the region.” What is the role of Singapore from a security standpoint toward China’s actions and its effect on other Southeast Asian nations?
Manning: Singapore is a leading actor and very influential in the ten-nation ASEAN bloc. Its comments in response to The Hague ruling were in lieu of a unified statement from ASEAN. ASEAN had no statement because it operates on consensus, and with Cambodia as a de-facto Chinese client state China in effect has a veto over ASEAN decisions. With regard to security, Singapore is a close military partner of the United States, with a small contingent of US troops—about one hundred—rotated in and out. It has a small but modern military. Singapore has always sought to balance its ties to the United States with those it has with China, so Singapore will emphasize diplomacy to address the South China Sea disputes.
Q: How does the relationship between the United States and Singapore affect the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward China? Does a stronger US-Singapore relationship give the United States more leverage in the region? Does it endanger Singapore’s relationship with China?
Manning: No nation in Asia wants to be forced to choose between the United States and China. There is a duality in the Asia-Pacific—which I have called “the Two Asias”—with economic trends being integrative, yet security trends being more nationalistic, confrontational, a situation of arms races across the region, and bandwagon-ing with the United States and the US-Japan alliance and also with each other in unprecedented ways, as a hedging strategy in response to a pattern of Chinese military and diplomatic assertiveness in the period since the 2008 to 2009 US financial crisis. Singapore, like other ASEAN nations, is very careful about trying to balance US and China relationships.
Q: Both US presidential candidates have come out opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Republican nominee Donald Trump has even called for an overarching isolationist foreign policy and abolishing NAFTA. Will a failed TPP ratification by the US Congress in January negatively affect US security interests in Southeast Asia? How will a failed ratification effect the future of the trade pact?
Manning: I think Prime Minister Lee summed it up in his remarks to the US Chamber of Commerce on August 2: “For America’s friends and partners, ratifying the TPP is a litmus test of your credibility and seriousness of purpose.” There is a compelling case for TPP—the United States already has free trade agreements with four of the TPP member states, including Singapore. Most economists—including a recent international trade commission study concluding that TPP would be at least a net plus for the United States in terms of both jobs and added GDP—differ only on projected amounts. But trade has become everyone’s punching bag in the US presidential campaign. This is unfortunate, because global supply chains and technological change, like artificial intelligence and robotics, are more responsible for US job losses than trade is—though there have been losers as well, particularly in the last ten to fifteen years as China has become the world’s manufacturer.
The Obama administration has made TPP a pillar of its “rebalance to Asia,”—including Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Defense Secretary Carter has said, “I would rather have TPP than another aircraft carrier.” TPP is an important vehicle for deepening the US economic role in the world’s fastest growing region.
As Prime Minister Lee said, failure to ratify it would be a serious blow to US credibility in Asia, raising doubts about US durability and reliability. There is a danger that if US economic involvement in Asia diminishes, the demonstrable benefits of the US strategic role in Asia will diminish and with it, the public’s and Congress’ support for a predominant US security role. A failure to ratify TPP would mark an inflection point for the US role in Asia. Failure would cede the playing field to China, which is pursuing a regional agreement—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—with far lower standards.
Q: To what degree do you think that Obama’s foreign policy toward Asia has left a lasting legacy in the region? Do you see this legacy as being endangered in the next US presidential administration?
Manning: Most Americans view the US security guarantor role in Asia as an inevitable fact of life. Most Asians are very conscious of geography and history and see the US role as a brief moment in history that may not be durable. They know China will always be close and big. Obama has made an important effort to underscore the importance of Asia to the United States, and that has been appreciated in the region. But there is concern about the potential of US retreat amid a growing Chinese role. While a declared “American First” foreign policy would strongly reinforce Asian fears, in any case, after fifteen years of perpetual war, the US mood appears to be one of at least some retrenchment no matter who wins. However, I think it is fair to say that if Clinton wins, Asia will be more likely to see more continuity in Asia policy and many familiar American faces in charge of it. In the long run, there is likely to always be some lingering Asia doubt about US durability. It comes with the territory.
Q: The US resumed airstrikes against ISIS in Libya on August 1 and has signaled that the strikes are part of a longer air campaign in the country. Singapore has sent troops and medical personnel to the Middle East in support of anti-ISIS coalition efforts and has jailed suspected members of ISIS operating in the Southeast Asia. Can you talk about how ISIS operates in Southeast Asia? Should Singapore and other US allies in Asia step up efforts to combat ISIS in the region?
Manning: With regard to ISIS and counter-terrorism, the United States works very closely with key Southeast Asian nations, not least of which with Singapore. We have an alliance with the Philippines, and have been active in helping them quell an insurgency in the southern islands. In Indonesia, the country hosting the world’s largest Muslim population, the United States works closely with the Jokowi government—they are very focused on small isolated incidents of Jihadist extremism in the country.
Robert Manning is a senior fellow with the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Mitch Hulse is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @mitchhulse.