Following a visit to Tsinghua University, the group’s second meeting marked a return to American soil, where we met with the economic strategy team of the US Embassy. The conversation centered around questions about the US’s economic priorities within China, which include improved IP protection (an area where there has been noticeable progress, particularly in regard to trademark enforcement), increased bilateral investment, and fair competition for US companies within China’s internal market.
The room’s temperature perked up midway through the meeting following a suggestion (in the form of a question) that US strategy in East Asia amounts to “containment,” an attempt by the US to limit China’s growing influence in the region. The latest evidence lies within the list of countries included and excluded from the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Excluded is China, while JSingapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, and Vietnam (a country that fails on many of the criteria that warrant China’s exclusion) are included. South Korea and Taiwan lie in wait, having publicly announced their intention to join the trade pact. Through TPP the US gains important trading allies along nearly the whole of China’s eastern and southern corridors, an arrangement likely to extend US geopolitical interest in the region. As Dan Drezner argues in the case of Mexico:
The security effects of free-trade agreements can be significant… It’s worth remembering that prior to NAFTA, Mexico had a … let’s say “fraught” relationship with the United States. NAFTA made it clear to U.S. policymakers that Mexico was now a key partner and merited treatment as such… And the lock-in effects of NAFTA also helped Mexico transition from a one-party-dominated state to a true multiparty democracy.
Given the geography of TPP, the tendency of trade agreements to deepen political ties, and the US military presence in East Asia, the TPP looks suspiciously like a deliberate act of “containment,” a preemptive maneuver by the US to ensure continued influence in the region. According to US Embassy officials in China, this absolutely is not what the TPP is or is intended to be. The United States’ objective is economic integration within the region, governed by “high [US] standards” in terms of labor, environmental, and intellectual property protection. The reason behind China’s absence is that the country does not currently meet these high standards, while also being uncertain about its desire to join. Containment, according to the lead economic strategy official, is a defunct concept harkening back to anti-Soviet strategy, and has no place in discourse surrounding current US foreign policy toward China. If China agrees to improve its standards and move toward privatization of its State Owned Enterprises (SOE), it is free to join.
Whether this is the US’s sincere position will be revealed in due time. The CPC’s public position has shifted from hostility to a willingness to someday sign on. How the US reacts to a Chinese petition for membership will be telling, as will the internal pace of Vietnamese reforms. Vietnamese economic and environmental protections compare poorly to TPP’s other members and its SOEs receive extensive government support. The degree to which Vietnam is pressed by its TPP partners to push reforms in these areas will go far to reveal whether the US position is in fact one of principle (fair competition) or instead constitutes geopolitical maneuvering.
– Ben J.