In the ashes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) lies a Pacific order waiting to be reborn. From its inception, the TPP was the United States’ final attempt to reassert its vision of a globalized, democratic, and capitalist Pacific Rim in the 21st century. Therefore, the demise of the TPP represents more than a rejection of free trade along the Rim; it embodies the defeat of the United States’ uniquely democratic and capitalist ideology. With China benefiting the most from such a demise, the downfall of the TPP may ultimately have a greater political impact than an economic impact, shifting Pacific economies and governments from the United States’ sphere of influence to China’s. What happens next could establish a new order among Pacific Rim countries, one in which the Chinese model of authoritarianism prevails over the US version of democracy. Thus, in order to understand where the Pacific is heading, it is imperative to analyze how the countries in the region arrived at such a critical crossroads.     

The United States’ Historical Hegemony

US supremacy in the Pacific dates back to the United States’ victory in the Pacific theater in World War II. On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan infamously “[awoke] the sleeping giant” of the United States at Pearl Harbor—a decision it would rue shortly afterwards. Since that conflict, the United States has proven to be the dominant power in the Pacific, effectively leveraging its scattered collection of Pacific islands and extensive market power to extend its influence to the coastlines of Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and Chile. Even after the United States relinquished much of its short-lived empire in the Pacific—a notable example is the Philippines—following the war, the lack of comparable rivals provided for nearly complete US hegemony in the region.

In fact, the United States' consolidation of a substantial base of military and economic allies along the Pacific Rim is likely its most successful bloc-forming effort outside of Europe.

Thus, the United States was primed to dominate the theater for the duration of the Cold War and into the present.

Over the past 75 years, the United States has encountered setbacks and successes on the other side of the Pacific. Gross policy failures in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia are case studies of 20th century US foreign policy fiascos, but such failures cannot overshadow the relative success of the United States in crafting effective policy in the Pacific. In fact, the United States’ consolidation of a substantial base of military and economic allies along the Pacific Rim is likely its most successful bloc-forming effort outside of Europe. Fewer than 10 years after the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay, the United States was already playing an integral role in rebuilding Japan’s industrial base and consolidating it as an ally in global affairs. Moreover, US economic cooperation with the ‘Asian Tigers’ of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore aligned many of Asia’s most developed economies with the United States, strengthening the United States’ anti-communist bloc in the region. Coupled with a strong relationship with Commonwealth of Nations members Australia and New Zealand and close ties with Thailand and the Philippines, US policy in the Pacific began to look more like a success than the failure that the one-dimensional Vietnam War narrative portrays it as.

New Problems for a New Century

Stepping into the 21st century, the United States appeared to be in a prime position to further tighten its grip on the Pacific. The collapse of the USSR left China as the lone large communist power, and a trend towards democracy in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand signaled a stronger US coalition. It seemed the US vision of democratic governments, protective of both civil liberties and free markets, had begun to take hold across the Pacific. In addition, greater cooperation between the United States and China liberalized trade between the countries and contributed to robust economic growth on both sides of the Pacific.

On the heels of these events at the outset of the century, the United States and capitalist Pacific Rim countries began working toward an agreement to solidify these trends: the TPP. While the publicly-stated objective of the TPP has long been centered on the economic gains it offers to member states, its political ramifications have at times overshadowed those economic goals. The promotion of democracy abroad is equally imperative to the TPP’s ultimate objective as the removal of tariffs and quotas. The omission of China, the second largest economy of the Pacific and of the world, from the TPP is a careful calculation made by the United States and its allies. In omitting China, the member states of the TPP made a statement against China’s human rights abuses, currency manipulation, and oft-unfair trade practices. The TPP would not be another trade pact to ease the influx of Chinese exports into foreign markets; instead, it was to be a nuanced attempt at standing up for China’s voiceless and oppressed workers. At last, the United States and its allies were to retaliate against Beijing for years of currency manipulation. Perhaps above all, the deal was intended to kindle the growth of civil liberties in a region that has taken an ominous turn towards autocracy and oppression.

US President Donald Trump signing an Executive Order ensuring the United States’ removal from the Trans Pacific Partnership on his first full workday in office. Photo by the White House, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

A Turn for the Worse

As recently as 2015, the TPP appeared close to being ratified and implemented by the great majority of its member states. In June 2015, a bipartisan bloc within the US Congress renewed President Obama’s Trade Promotion Authority, which provided the president and his negotiation team expanded powers in negotiating trade agreements with foreign countries. Yet signs of strain became evident with the onset of the 2016 US presidential election when both major party candidates for president staked strong positions against the agreement. The election of Donald Trump, who has called the TPP “a rape of our country,” has essentially sealed the deal’s fate. Without the United States—both the TPP’s largest economy and its key ideological leader—the TPP is destined to be buried in diplomacy’s graveyard. As a result, President Obama’s vision of a democratic Pacific likely will meet a similar demise as Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a better world that he tried to instill with the League of Nations.

On one level, most analysts predict that the failure of the TPP will have significant economic effects. Export-reliant industries across the twelve member states are likely to suffer the most from the persistence of the tariffs and quotas. The anticipated reduction in exports could affect a range of industries worldwide, from corn farmers in Iowa and dairy producers in Canada to tech manufacturers in Japan. Furthermore, negotiations have started on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which has already been branded as the ‘Chinese TPP.’ The RCEP would essentially reduce barriers to free trade among China, India, and the majority of the TPP countries located in Asia and Oceania.

Without the United States - both the TPP's largest economy and its key ideological leader - the TPP is destined to be buried in democracy's graveyard.

While the two agreements are not mutually exclusive, the implementation of the RCEP would be a significant blow to the economies of the TPP countries excluded from the prospective agreement (the United States, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and Peru) should the TPP fail. Therefore, the TPP bloc as a whole is likely to experience a significant degree of lost trade revenue and reduced GDP, as well as a pivot of economic reliance from the United States to China.

A Chinese Navy oiler docking in Pearl Harbor during a routine port visit to the United States. Photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the expected negative economic impacts, the most potent consequence of the deal’s downfall is perhaps political. A handful of young Pacific democracies are experiencing significant troubles and challenges to their democratic frameworks. Thailand’s democracy has been undermined by a military coup and an undemocratic constitution. The Philippines is governed by a democratically-elected demagogue whom the United Nations fears has committed crimes against humanity. South Korea just endured a painful presidential impeachment. Singapore and Mexico struggle with democratic systems that have allowed for the domination of a single political party for much of their democratic histories. Asian and Latin American citizens need a world leader to offer an alternative vision to the trend toward increasingly oppressive and totalitarian governments, and the United States has provided that exemplar for three-quarters of a century. Today, it is becoming evident that the United States has relinquished or neglected that role to the detriment of democracies around the Pacific.