Well, he did it. Barack Obama’s presidency is ending with a bang and not a whimper. The just concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal between 12 countries ringing the Pacific Ocean amounts to the most significant free trade accord in memory.
First, there is the economic heft of the signatories to consider: they account for fully 40 per cent of today’s global economic output. Given that global free trade deals through the World Trade Organization (WTO) have ground to a halt, TPP is by a long way the most important realisable trade deal on offer.
Second, there are real world economic benefits for all. It is estimated that the deal will add 0.5 per cent to US economic growth over the next few years, which given our straitened times is nothing to sneeze at. In all, TPP ought to add $285bn to global GDP by 2025.
By tying the world’s largest economy (the US) and the planet’s third largest economy (Japan) more closely together, TPP is a real shot in the arm for Abenomics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious effort to re-launch Japan’s long-moribund economy, using a weaker yen to foster real growth for Japanese exporters. For smaller states, TPP serves the cause of structural economic reform, in that it mandates the breaking up of domestic protectionist cartels in places such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
All these benefits are real and laudable, some of the few recent glimmers of hope for a world economy desperately searching for future engines of growth. But TPP is not at base about its economic specifics. Instead, it is the primary geopolitical expression of the White House’s Pivot to Asia, the practical embodiment of Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative.
The theory behind the Asia Pivot has undeniable intellectual merit. Under President George W Bush – with his endless and wasteful adventure in Iraq – America had spread itself far too thin in the world, not prioritising what mattered in terms of US interests. And what matters – beyond all else – is Asia.
It is where much of the world’s future economic growth will come from. But due to the rise of a China that wants to (perhaps understandably) dominate its immediate neighbourhood, supplanting the US as the primary power in East Asia, it is also the scene of much of the world’s future geopolitical risk. As such, America must do much more in the region, while eschewing an ungrateful and thankless Middle East, and leaving Europe to actually do something in its own backyard, rather than perpetually relying on the US to deal with either the Balkans, North Africa, or Vladimir Putin.
As ever with President Obama, his elegant thinking has proven difficult to translate into real world initiatives; follow-through has always been this White House’s cardinal sin. And for years the Asia Pivot has been the poster child of this seminal, crippling problem. Beyond kind words, a few marines transferring to the north coast of Australia, and benefitting from China’s counterproductive bullying in the East China and South China Seas, the Asia Pivot amounted to almost nothing tangible.
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The signing of TPP – with a stroke of a pen – alters this long-standing problem. By concluding TPP without Beijing’s participation, it is the US and not China that has managed to set the trading rules in the most vital region in the world in our new multipolar era. TPP has graphically demonstrated that Washington will not easily relinquish its dominant position in East Asia, and that the US is engaged in the region with its allies for the long haul.
But if follow-through has been one besetting sin of this administration, the other – a dislike for and inability to game out domestic American politics – may ruin what ought to be a moment of great triumph for the White House. Because it is a clear bet that – other than Vice President Joe Biden – anyone else winning the presidency is likely to abandon the Asia Pivot. Even his former secretary of state and now frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination Hillary Clinton has (rather treacherously) come out against the deal, as a way to shield herself from attacks from the left of her party.
Almost all Republican candidates for the presidency are neo-conservatives of one form or another, a group characterised by its inability to discern primary US interests; in trying to do everything, the neo-cons end up prioritising nothing. Due to his inability to groom a true political heir, Obama’s TPP foreign policy triumph may well prove to be all too fleeting.