U.S. President Donald Trump is reconsidering membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. If he follows through, it would constitute the most significant policy reversal since he took office. As welcome as this shift is, it is by no means guaranteed: Not only must Trump decide to go through with the membership bid, but the 11 signatories, which only recently agreed on a revised text, must then reopen the treaty for negotiations with Washington. U.S. membership in the TPP — now the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — is much desired but not at the price of a weakened and diluted deal.
For Trump, no agreement better symbolized U.S. failure in trade policy than the TPP. In the 2016 campaign he excoriated President Barack Obama for negotiating the deal, at one point tweeting “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country. …” One of the first executive orders he signed as president withdrew the United States from the agreement.
Yet rather than tear up the deal, the remaining 11 countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — driven in no small part by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, renegotiated the draft, removing many of the U.S. demands. That revised treaty was agreed and will go into effect when it is ratified by six of the signatories. In its current state, the CPTPP countries represent about 500 million people, and account for more than 13 percent of the global economy with a total GDP of $10 trillion. U.S. membership would boost that to 40 percent of global GDP, topping $30 trillion.
At this point, Trump’s intentions are not clear. He and his economic team have hinted for months of a change in thinking and last week, he reportedly tasked U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to study the prospects of U.S. membership. That is not, as some have said, a commitment to rejoin negotiations. Most importantly, Trump conditioned U.S. membership on a “substantially better” deal than the one Obama had.
The other 11 governments want the U.S. to return to the fold. It would significantly expand the market access afforded by membership and it would help balance Chinese economic influence in the region. Finance Minister Taro Aso spoke for many of the signatories when he remarked that “if it’s true, I would welcome it,” as did Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said it would be “great” to have the U.S. back.
At the same time, however, there is no appetite for renegotiating terms of the deal. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga likened it to “glasswork,” explaining that it is extremely difficult to take out one part and renegotiate.” Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo was more blunt: “We’ve got a deal. … I can’t see that all being thrown open to appease the United States.”
In fact, the CPTPP 11 “suspended” many of the provisions that were of greatest concern to the U.S., such as strengthening intellectual property protection for pharmaceutical products, extending the length of copyrights, minimum sourcing requirements for automobiles and other vehicles, and the opening of agriculture markets for products such as rice, an especially sore point for Japan. In theory, however, Trump’s insistence on improving the terms of the agreement means that merely taking the previously negotiated terms off the shelf is not an option.
The U.S. cannot formally begin negotiations until the agreement goes into effect, which is likely to be next year. That will be after U.S. midterm elections, which means that Trump cannot use the prospect of membership and new markets to appease voters from farm country who are being hurt by trade fights that the president has picked with China and other partners. If those same elections give Democrats control of the Senate, then the prospects of passing a Trump-approved renegotiated trade agreement will sink even further. The fact that Trump may need a deal to help his supporters increases the leverage of the CPTPP 11 in negotiations, while the prospect of a rejection by the Senate will make those same governments wary of any concessions.
Still, Trump’s seeming readiness to reconsider CPTPP will gladden the hearts of Japanese politicians and bureaucrats. It validates Abe’s determination to keep the deal alive and shows him to be a man of vision. It should help parry U.S. efforts to force Japan into talks for a bilateral free trade agreement. But, most importantly, U.S. membership will encourage other countries to join the CPTPP, helping to transform it into a truly significant trade agreement — one that sets meaningful rules for economic integration and regional order.