• The San Juan Daily Star

China’s leaders are having fun with us. Who can blame them?

By Thomas L. Friedman

Anyone who says that China’s President Xi Jinping does not have a sense of humor is definitely not following the news from the Pacific these days.

China last week applied for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the trade deal that was originally negotiated by President Barack Obama precisely to counter China’s economic power in the Pacific. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump promptly tore it up rather than learn what it was about and get Congress to ratify it, and the Democrats have since then made no move to revive the deal, known as the TPP.

Beijing applying to join the TPP is the diplomatic equivalent of the U.S. asking to be a member of China’s “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia, or Russia applying to be a member of the new NAFTA because it controls part of the Arctic north of Canada. In other words, a deliciously mischievous ploy.

But it’s a ploy that exposes a real weakness in U.S. foreign policymaking toward China, which has become the biggest challenger to American preeminence in setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy.

China’s announcement came the day after Britain, the U.S. and Australia took geopolitical competition with China to a new level by announcing a historic security pact to help Australia deploy the most advanced nuclear-powered submarines, to counter Beijing’s growing naval clout in the Asia-Pacific region.

But we need a strategy for not just containing China with submarines that could take years before going on patrol. We need a strategy for changing China’s behavior today, which is what the TPP was partly designed to do.

China was never formally excluded from the TPP by its Obama administration designers. But the message to Beijing was: If you want to be part of this American-crafted 21st-century trade pact, you have to play by our rules. That’s why reformers in China were intrigued by the TPP — they saw it as a lever to open the Chinese system — and hard-liners feared it more than submarines.

But after the U.S.-U.K.-Australia sub deal, the Chinese obviously said to themselves: “Let’s have some fun. After the Americans were so stupid as to never join the trade pact that they designed to keep us out, America in and its Pacific allies close, the 11 other partners went ahead without them. They even renamed it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). So, let’s try to use the attraction of easier access to China’s giant market to take over the TPP on our terms instead of America’s! And what better way to counter the American submarine deal with Australia?”

It was a brilliant move. As The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday: “A decade ago, it was a trade club led by the U.S. seeking to limit the influence of China’s economic model. Now Washington is out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Beijing wants in — as the group’s biggest member.”

While China’s admittance is not likely anytime soon (it requires unanimous consent of the members), just by applying Beijing is exposing how unserious the American far left and far right are when it comes to China. They rail against Beijing’s human rights policy and then they block one of America’s most effective tools to nudge — and that is the most we can ever do — China toward more transparency and the rule of law, i.e., TPP.

“Reformers in China carefully monitored the original TPP negotiations with the hope that China joining the TPP could lead to domestic reforms,’’ said James McGregor, chairman of the consultancy APCO Worldwide, Greater China. “Those days are gone. In its new bid to join, China will likely try to use the lure of its huge market to entice the other members to live with China meeting some TPP requirements while muddying others.’’

What makes this Chinese maneuver more ridiculous is that Trump was so ignorant about the contents of the TPP before he tore it up — his main objection was surely that Obama had negotiated it — that when he was first asked about it in a campaign debate in November 2015, Trump incorrectly suggested that China was in it from the start. Trump was just ahead of his time!

But Trump’s foolishness had a lot of tacit support from Bernie Sanders and his fellow progressives with their knee-jerk opposition to the pact — even though it was designed by Obama to address all the core labor and environmental issues that the left did not like about free trade.

This is all the more a tragic comedy because our Pacific allies actually gave America trade concessions to create the agreement that they would not do before — precisely because they wanted us in the neighborhood as a bigger economic counterweight to China’s growing domination. And then we walked away, and now China wants to take our place — on its terms.

It is not too late for America to get back into the TPP and even strengthen it by insisting on stricter rules of origin (which Trump added to the new NAFTA). This would ensure that if somehow China were admitted to the partnership, it could not get around U.S. tariffs on certain Chinese exports by moving their final assembly to Vietnam, while keeping the core value chain in China.

I’ll take America joining the TPP today over helping to deploy submarines years from now. By then, if America continues to stay out, the CPTPP surely will be renamed again. It will have the same initials but they will stand for the “Chinese People’s Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Now wouldn’t that be funny. …

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