With the stroke of a pen, newly inaugurated United States president, Donald J. Trump, today made good on one of his least controversial campaign promises; withdrawing his country from the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement via an executive order.
The Agreement, which was signed by the US and eleven other Pacific-rim participants in February 2016, was intended to be a high standard agreement and was significantly WTO-plus in its provisions. While hailed by big business for its ambitiousness, several aspects made the agreement significantly unpopular with civil society groups and increasingly some politicians which criticised the secrecy under which the negotiations took place, the implications of its intellectual property rights provisions for access to medicines, the choice of the longstanding investor-state dispute settlement mechanism for settlement of investor claims against states, inter alia.
Another criticism was that in absence of significant progress in the WTO Doha Round (which is now all but declared dead) it would set new standards and rules for 21st century global trade given that the parties account for 40% of the global economy and a third of global trade. It would turn the non members into standard-takers without having the chance to have been at the negotiating table. Mr Trump’s criticism of the agreement,however, was simply that it would kill American jobs.
Although President Barack Obama had championed the agreement and had pushed unsuccessfully for its ratification by congress, TPP was a rare point on which there was consensus by then candidates Republican, Donald Trump and Democrat, Hillary Clinton who both criticised its possible implications for US manufacturing and jobs. During the campaign, Mr. Trump had likened the agreement to rape of the country. Previously Mrs. Clinton had called it the “gold standard” but later said she was against the final outcome.
The move is a politically beneficial one for President Trump as it ticks off one of his most popular campaign promises and makes him look like a hero for American workers. It also gets him bipartisan support and will likely improve his approval ratings which have been the lowest for an incoming president.
Mr. Trump’s move also signals that he aims to stick to his “America first” trade policies. In upcoming days Mr. Trump also signalled his intention to start renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with partners Canada and Mexico to secure a better deal for American workers. Among other proposals, Mr. Trump has restated his threat to impose a border tax on imports from US companies which outsource jobs overseas. The withdrawal of the US from the TPP also raises questions about the future of yet another mega regional trade agreement, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP) currently under negotiation between the US and the EU.
Mr. Trump will be meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday to discuss, inter alia, UK-US post-Brexit trade relations. Unlike his predecessor, President Trump has indicated that the UK will not be at the back of the queue for a free trade agreement with the US. However, in contrast to Mr. Trump’s neo-mercantilist views, Mrs. May has enthusiastically reiterated her support of free trade and free markets, indicating last week her intention for the UK to become a global leader of free trade.
President Trump has indicated he will seek to negotiate bilateral agreements with those individual TPP countries with which the US does not yet have an FTA. With regard to the future of TPP, the views of the other countries are mixed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe previously indicated that TPP without the US was meaningless. Malaysia indicated it would go the bilateral route while Australia indicated it would try to salvage the agreement. A major geopolitical concern raised by foreign policy analysts about the US’ withdrawal is that it misses an opportunity for the US to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, leaving an opening for China which was not a party to TPP. However, negotiations on RCEP, to which China is party and seen as a rival to TPP, have also been slow.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.