Reengaging the Asia-Pacific on Trade: A TPP Roadmap for the Next U.S. Administration



Wendy Cutler | Asia Society Policy Institute

IN THE AFTERMATH OF A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, it’s not unusual for an incoming administration to revisit policy choices made by the previous administration or, in the case of reelection, during the first term. One decision that strongly merits another look after November is the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional trade agreement that the United States signed with 11 other countries in 2016. In addition to eliminating tariffs, the TPP established high-standard rules in areas critical to the global economy, such as e-commerce, intellectual property protection, state-owned enterprises, labor, and the environment, promoting an alternative economic model to state-led capitalism in the region.

In recent years, the case for U.S. participation in the TPP has only become more compelling as the political and economic importance of the Asia-Pacific region has grown and concerns about Beijing’s economic model have mounted. East Asia is bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic before the rest of the world, and deepening economic ties with the engines of global growth will be an even more valuable proposition in the midst of a deep recession. Moreover, the pandemic has revealed serious vulnerabilities in supply chain networks, and the common standards and rules of the TPP can serve as the basis for establishing trusted supply chains in the region. But is there a path for the United States to return to the TPP or to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the 11 remaining countries finalized without the United States?

This report examines four options that the next administration would have for reengaging the CPTPP countries on trade: returning to the original TPP agreement, formally acceding to the CPTPP, seeking a broader renegotiation with the CPTPP as a baseline, or working on a narrower sectoral deal as an immediate, interim step. It then assesses the feasibility of each option based on domestic considerations and developments, as well as input from the CPTPP countries.

Domestically, a policy window may be opening for CPTPP reentry. Whereas trade was seen as toxic only four years ago, recent polls have found growing bipartisan public support for trade. At the same time, however, the views of the political parties on trade appear to be shifting. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that the United States is on the precipice of a new trade order, with Republicans more protectionist and Democrats friendlier toward trade. This makes the domestic landscape and the outcome of a congressional trade vote uncertain. The strong bipartisan congressional vote in favor of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) led many to conclude that this agreement should be the new U.S. template for trade agreements. However, there may be factors unique to the USMCA that would not be in play in a negotiation with Asian countries. Another complicating factor is the fate of Trade Promotion Authority, set to expire in July 2021, which is a prerequisite for negotiations in the view of U.S. trading partners.

The prospect of CPTPP reentry also depends on the extent to which its members would be open to revisions proposed by the United States. To take the temperature of capitals in Asia, the Asia Society Policy Institute spoke with a dozen current and former trade officials from a diverse set of CPTPP countries. Those interviewed unanimously affirmed that they would welcome the United States back, but not at any cost. They are wary of being asked to make extensive revisions, having been scarred by the U.S. withdrawal after expending significant political capital during the TPP negotiations. Those countries  were accustomed to the uncertainties of the congressional approval process, but they now also worry about the presidential election cycle.

With the foregoing considerations in mind, the report offers a road map for the next administration to reengage with the CPTPP countries. Recommended steps include the following:

  • Launch an interim sectoral agreement: As a first step, pursue a limited, sector-specific Asia-Pacific trade deal with the CPTPP members, and perhaps other countries, to set high standards, rebuild trust, and build momentum. Promising topics include:
    • Digital trade, an area that represents more and more of overall trade, particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of the global economy.
    • Trade in medical and other essential products, a sector in which COVID-19 has focused attention on trade restrictions and vulnerabilities in global supply chains.
    • Trade and the environment/climate, which may be of particular interest to a Democratic White House.
  • Invest in competitiveness and adjustment at home: Build support for trade agreements generally and the CPTPP specifically at home by investing in competitiveness and adjustment policies and programs. Doing so would take the pressure off trade agreements to achieve goals they are not designed to tackle, such as ensuring more equitable income distribution.
  • Make the case for trade: Explain to the American public that deeper U.S. trade engagement with Asia-Pacific partners is integral to building an alternative economic model to Chinese state capitalism, diversifying U.S. trade beyond China and, ideally, promoting reforms within China.
  • Prioritize negotiating proposals: Develop and prioritize concrete proposals for U.S. reengagement with the CPTPP based on input from business, labor, and civil society groups throughout the country, as well as Congress.
  • Consult with trading partners: Consult with the CPTPP members to understand their limits, priorities, and concerns around U.S. reengagement.

These steps would pave the way for U.S. reentry into the CPTPP. Even then, CPTPP reengagement would be a heavy lift that would require flexibility and creativity from both the United States and the CPTPP countries. Returning to the original TPP by signing on to a five-year-old agreement that faced considerable opposition at home is not a realistic proposition in 2021. The approach with the best odds of success would likely fall between formal CPTPP accession and a more extensive renegotiation. For that to work, the United States would need to focus on the most important changes and modernizations needed, while the CPTPP countries would need to be more open to changes than during a typical accession.

Given the domestic and international challenges outlined in this report, it is understandable that many would question whether returning to the CPTPP is worth all the trouble. Despite those concerns, rejoining the CPTPP is one of the most impactful ways in which the United States can work with likeminded countries in the region to promote an alternative economic model to state-led capitalism and help shape the economic future of a region that is increasingly the engine of global growth and innovation.

A TPP Roadmap for the Next U.S. Administration

Wendy Cutler is the Vice President and Managing Director of Washington DC Office of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former Deputy USTR.

To download the full report, please click here.