The latest line from proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) implies that President Obama threatened long-standing national security relationships in his negotiating of the TPP. These proponents are not pushing the economic merits of the TPP, but rather arguing that its rejection by Congress would jeopardize longstanding ties between the United States and Asia. The claim is that if Congress is not prepared to approve the TPP, then countries like Japan and South Korea will no longer be able to rely on defense commitments that have been in place for more than half a century.
As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, commented on a trip to Washington:
“It [rejecting the TPP] hurts your relationship with Japan, your security agreements with Japan, … And the Japanese, living in an uncertain world, depending on an American nuclear umbrella, will have to say: On trade, the Americans could not follow through; if it’s life and death, whom do I have to depend upon?”
Other proponents of the TPP have made similar comments. The idea is that if the US won’t follow through on a trade pact that is has spent almost eight years negotiating, then how can it be counted on to honor its defense commitments to the countries of the region.
If this claim is taken at face value, it implies that President Obama was unbelievably irresponsible in negotiating the TPP. He knew that many aspects of the deal would be highly controversial. For example, the deal includes no enforceable provisions to prevent the sort of currency management by China and other countries that have been the major cause of the country’s $500 billion (2.8 percent of GDP) annual trade deficit.
The deal also includes provisions that make patent and copyright protection longer and stronger. These provisions will lead to higher prices for prescription drugs and other protected items in other countries, and possibly the United States as well. In addition, more money for the drug companies and entertainment industry in royalties means that our trading partners will have less money to spend on US manufactured goods.
In addition, the TPP provides for the creation of investor-state dispute settlement tribunals — extra-judicial bodies that give special privileges to foreign investors — including foreign subsidies of US corporations. These tribunals will be able to override US laws at all levels of government.
For these and other reasons, President Obama surely knew that the TPP would be highly controversial when it was debated before Congress. Is it really plausible that he did not make it clear to our negotiating partners that he couldn’t guarantee approval of the final agreement?
The proponents of the TPP would have us believe that President Obama told our trading partners that approval of the TPP was a slam dunk. That they could count on congressional approval in the same way that they could count on Congress to honor its military commitments in the region. That one doesn’t sound very likely.
In the lack of plausibility department we are also asked to believe that the governments in the region are incredibly ignorant about the state of US politics. The TPP has been a hot item for debate long before Congress voted to grant fast-track authority in the summer of 2015. It has continued to be a major issue in the presidential primaries of both parties. Is it plausible that the staffs of the Japanese, Vietnamese and other embassies of the TPP countries somehow missed these debates or failed to report back to their governments on how contentious the pact is?
That one hardly passes the laugh test. Surely these embassies are staffed by competent and intelligent people. It is precisely their job to follow debates like the one on the TPP and to report back to their governments. While the governments of the other countries in the TPP may be disappointed by the decision of Congress not to approve the pact, it is inconceivable that they would be surprised by it.
There is an alternative hypothesis that makes far more sense. The Obama administration, along with other supporters of the TPP, doesn’t feel it can sell the deal based on its merits as an economic pact. Therefore they are inventing a national security rationale for the TPP that does not exist. It’s not a pretty story, but as they say in Washington: You throw it against the wall and see what sticks.