Dr. Adam Webb on the TPP and China

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Photo Courtesy: SAIS Website
Photo Courtesy: SAIS Website

NANJINGDr. Webb’s research and teaching interests center around global cultural issues including liberalism and anti-liberalism, classics of political and social theory, world political thought, modernity and its critics, rural politics and alternative development.

How has the Chinese government reacted to the successful completion of TPP negotiations?

During the earlier stages of negotiations, there was a fairly strong critical undercurrent from Beijing, since the TPP was clearly envisioned in Washington as part of a broader geostrategic attempt to balance Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific.  Obama’s remark that the TPP would reduce leverage by “countries like China” over trading rules illustrated as much, yet again, after signing.  The final announcement itself elicited a surprisingly more neutral response from Beijing, however.  The foreign ministry spokeswoman merely conveyed a general enthusiasm for trade and hoped for further opening in various directions.  Given that the TPP still has to work its way through ratification, and that other agreements are also in the making, Beijing may be waiting to see how this plays out.  There is also some speculation that it may wish to engage more directly with the TPP itself much further down the road, so is tempering its response now.

Many observers have commented that the TPP is more than just a trade agreement. What might the participants in the deal be hoping to achieve beyond the standard goals of reducing tariffs and lowering other trade barriers?

The vision and implications of the TPP do go far beyond trade, which by many measures including tariffs and the like is already fairly open across most sectors and spaces.  They also go beyond even how modest tweaking of tariffs and the like might tip trade flows a bit more towards America and a bit away from China, at the margins.  Indeed, critics have been quite correct in noticing that only a minority of the TPP chapters deal directly with conventional trade issues.  The broader significance lies in creating a more level playing field for cross-border economic activity.  The TPP will go an appreciable way to meaning that economic actors in much of the Asia-Pacific do not face undue barriers based simply on who and where they are.

This is all the more important because much of Asia simply has not been fully committed to this long term global project of opening and rules-based architecture.  This is underappreciated in most narratives about foreign policy and the rise of Asia.  As economic and political weight shift gradually away from the West, the West can make this final push toward locking in an irreversible process of opening and overcoming some ideas about Asian exceptionalism.  Successful initiatives like the TPP can demonstrate by experience the gains that can come from openness, and some of the apprehensions.  They also create constituencies who benefit from openness and would resist rolling it back.

What are some of the main opportunities and challenges present in this drive for a “rules-based architecture”? How does this approach compare to Chinese initiatives such as the One-Belt One Road (OBOR) plan and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)?

Many activists legitimately note that the TPP will constrain public policy to favour corporate interests.  Frankly, one would be naïve to imagine that any trade agreement coming out of Washington and negotiated by the sort of élites sitting around the TPP table could tilt in any other direction.  But the kind of bilateral, politically driven, sovereigntist agenda emanating from Beijing and its closer partners, and manifest in rival trade agreements, may pose a far greater obstacle to genuine openness and accountability in the long run.  Insularity and political-economic cronyism are probably a more pressing problem for the Asia-Pacific architecture than giving too much leeway to transnational corporations in the short term.  Rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no evidence that Asian élites playing a sovereigntist and protectionist game are at all committed to social equity as a core principle anyway.  Moreover, if one thinks of global institution-building as a multigenerational undertaking, breaking down some of these barriers and creating constituencies for openness probably matter more.  In the long run, cross-border networks will have to press the case for fairer distribution of economic gains, for more attention to the social context of economic activity, and for more bottom-up benefits.  Some of what has happened in the European Union, with added benefits for ordinary people like freedom of movement, hit at what might be on the agenda decades hence.  But the experience and the public support to imagine such things does depend on driving wedges of rules-based openness into countries that have been, in many instances, notoriously reluctant to embrace such a project.  Bluntly put, without openness there will not be enough of a cross-border constituency emerging to tackle the “real” social dimensions of what globalisation might deliver for ordinary people.

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