What the Trump administration will ultimately do to the shape of the global trade regime is difficult to foretell but there’s no question that it will change it forever, even if there is strong global push-back against Trump’s threat to unravel trade agreements and carry a protectionist stick.
The trade regime and the way in which it encourages open trade and international interdependence among those who sign on to its rules, is not simply an instrument of economic policy strategy that can be changed without political consequence. For most countries and certainly those in East Asia which are so dependent on open trade to sustain their basic livelihood, the trade regime is a critical instrument of political security.
Trump has already signed executive orders to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). What appeared noisy campaign rhetoric has been transformed into concrete action.
Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP is no big deal in itself: with the exception of what it promised in terms of liberalisation of the Japanese economy, the economic effects of the deal that was on the table were oversold. Even renegotiation of the NAFTA may have more limited economic consequences than have been threatened. But these steps, together with the threat of punitive tariffs on imports from China or Mexico, plus a total retreat from multilateral or regional trade agreements, tear at the core principles upon which the US-supported post-war economic order has been built.
Anyone who says that a switch of this magnitude and direction in the trade policy strategy of the world’s largest economy and second-largest international trader is of little consequence is seriously delusional. The old certainties that brought prosperity and a significant measure of stability to world affairs for nearly three-quarters of a century after the Second World War are under threat.
A world in which the defining characteristic is a lot of bilateral trade agreements rather than one in which multilateral and regional frameworks are predominant imposes costs on business and consumers alike because of the need for compliance with different rules of treatment across different trading partners. It also injects a different tone into international politics. These concerns are what motivate the argument for regional and global trade regimes that govern international flows of goods and services through unified rules and standards.
The broader the framework within which trade can take place, the greater will be the scope for division of labour and the higher the gains from international trade. Bilateral trade deals can’t replicate the gains from regional and multilateral agreement and they will unhelpfully cut across global and regional value chains. As the largest centre of production networks, East Asia has much at stake in the push back against an open, global rules-based trading system and the regional arrangements that support it.
While the direct economic costs of Trump turning America’s back on the TPP and other measures might be relatively small, the systemic costs are much larger.
Strategic turning point
As Shiro Armstrong and Amy King write in this week’s lead essay, Trump’s executive order to withdraw the United States from the TPP agreement in the Asia Pacific ‘is a strategic turning point in the open economic order. It is a blow to furthering reform for some members, a lost opportunity for the United States to write the rules of international commerce and more worryingly, a sign of the United States turning its back on the global economic system it helped create and lead’.
How can East Asia, which includes China and Japan — the world’s largest and fourth-largest trading nations — stand against the corrosion of a global trading order that is so central to their common economic and political interests?
The economies of East Asia must, of course, stand quietly firm in global and regional forums and in all their bilateral representations to the United States against the undermining of the global trading system, giving strength to those forces in America that can help to shape much better outcomes than the present circumstances threaten. But, through their own commitment to collective liberalisation and reform, they can also help to lead the system back from the brink.
With major multilateral trade deals at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) now too difficult and bilaterals only able to make slow and incomplete progress towards freer markets, Armstrong and King observe, all eyes now turn to Asia’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. It is the most important initiative on the global trade scene.
The RCEP comprises the 10 Southeast Asian members of ASEAN as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Though, as Armstrong and King say, there are many misconceptions about the RCEP enterprise.
‘The first misconception is that the RCEP is China-led. But China is a spoke and ASEAN is the hub of the arrangement. The RCEP was built to consolidate ASEAN’s five separate free trade agreements with China, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia–New Zealand. And the RCEP idea and its guiding principles were crafted not in China, but in Indonesia. ASEAN centrality has ensured that the RCEP has incorporated Asia’s other large power — Japan — and reflects Japanese preferences as much as those of China. Originally, China wanted to limit core membership of Asian cooperation to ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea. Japan wanted a larger membership, involving Australia, New Zealand and India, to help provide a counterweight to China’.
In the end, ASEAN centrality and the interests of Australia and India in the region meant a broader and representative group ideally placed to take the lead collectively on global trade.
‘With the world trading system under threat’, as Armstrong and King conclude, ‘it is time for leaders in Asia to step up and push for opening markets and deepening reforms to enhance economic integration, not just with each other but with Europe, the United States and the rest of the world’.
(The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific)