The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest trade accord in history is a big deal, agrees economist Arthur Kroeber in a discussion at ChinaFile. But he does not this TPP will help as a tool to stem China´s influence in the region, one of its targets.
I’m not sure I agree, though, that it will do much to “reduce Chinese economic preponderance” in the region. That preponderance is driven by China’s sheer size, its continued growth—which though slower than in the past is still faster than that of most other Asian economies—and its increasing centrality in global supply chains. Moreover China has its own strategy for increasing its influence, through the infrastructure projects under the “Belt and Road” umbrella, which will be funded by Chinese policy banks and the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The impact of the Belt and Road initiative will likely be felt more immediately and concretely than the effect of the TPP, many of whose features will phase in slowly over several years.
Moreover, the TPP illustrates a dilemma for U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific. On one side, Washington seeks to counterbalance China’s rising power by strengthening its military relationships with its regional allies, tilting in favor of southeast Asian countries in their maritime disputes with China, discouraging its friends from participating in Chinese initiatives such as the AIIB, and pursuing a massive trade agreement that leaves out the region’s and the world’s biggest trading nation. On the other side, American leaders reiterate that they have no desire to “contain” China (rightly seeing such a strategy would fail), and argue that deeper engagement, rather than confrontation, is the right way forward in U.S.-China relations.
This stance is borderline incoherent, and it’s understandable why many Chinese see it as duplicitous. Washington’s words are all about constructive engagement, but its deeds mostly smack of containment. At the root is a deep ambivalence about whether or not the U.S. should accept China as an equal. If it does, then it must also accept that China will build a sphere of influence and regional arrangements that exclude the U.S. If it does not, then it must accept that in fact if not in name it is pursuing a strategy of containment. Such a strategy heightens the risk of armed conflict.
For the moment, China and the U.S. still mostly conduct their relations on a basis of economic pragmatism rather than strategic rivalry. But the ground is rapidly shifting. The completion of the TPP sharpens the question of how the U.S. and China will share power in the Asia-Pacific, but provides no answer.
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