Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS)
The realm of US-China relations in 2015 are, indisputably, game-changing and vastly different from US-China relations that we experienced in 2005. A decade has passed, and we have seen the increasingly closing gaps between United States and China in regard to their global power. 2014 was a pivotal year, when for the first time in history, US lost its monopoly of a country with double-digit trillion US$ in terms of GDP values. While the former has managed to accumulate over 17.5 trillion US$ in GDP, China, in that regard, has leapfrogged by adding almost 1 trillion US$, strengthening its position into 10.5 trillion US$ as of last year. It is not simply a matter ‘if’ – the question is simple: when will China overtake the US? My most rational forecasting (humbly speaking, with significant percentages of potential errors) is 10-15 years. Time is running short, and at least, China has succeeded to become the world’s largest economy, if one looks at the country’s purchasing power parity (PPP), at an estimated 17.6 trillion US$. Despite the fact that China has been gradually slowing down to a ‘new normal’ of growth rate, and most recently, the stock market crash taking place in the last one month, it doesn’t mean China has stopped generating its industrial output; the country simply wants to move up one stage into a more ‘high-quality’ economy (how high-quality it will be remains a good question), driven more actively by domestic consumption, and in a pattern widely similar to what Americans did after World War II, international trade. The economic slowing-down has pretty much forced Beijing to expand its trade agenda into a more complex level than before.
China has at least succeeded in some of its international initiatives: the country already established two development banks (AIIB and NDB) in 2014 alone, the ‘One Belt One Road‘ economic initiatives, planned to link Asia, Africa, and Europe into integrated transport and trading networks, have enjoyed significant support from many developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. China is also moving along with free trade agreements, most recently with South Korea and Australia. The biggest one being negotiated right now, RCEP, is set for completion – should all parties agree – before the end of this decade (at most).
These bring challenges to United States, no doubt. Having recently recovered from 2008 financial crisis and hampered by the ongoing bipartisan politics in numerous policy agendas, it is undeniable, therefore, that the world will question if America will still remain relevant as the world’s global power in the decades to come. I dare not answer that question; it has to, to be honest, require a few upcoming presidents, all with sound, carefully planned, and long-term power projection ambitions, while at the same time bridging the bipartisan conflicts of interest. This will not be easy, for sure. Everyone knows how many innumerable difficulties President Barack Obama has encountered in ensuring his proposals pass the Congress. Most recently, the almost-casualty was the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), a fast-track, no-Congress-amendment negotiating power critically needed to pass Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest proposed free trade agreement in history. Already an elephant in the room, President Obama only began to aggressively promote and pitch the TPP in 2014 – all despite the fact that United States expressed its interest as early as 2008, and it was poorly-timed as ruptures between Obama and his own allies, Democratic Party, were increasingly deteriorating. It was only through a pragmatic, ironic compromise when Obama decided to gain ‘alliances’ with the Republicans that the fast-track authority was eventually signed into law by end of June 2015, giving him unprecedented negotiating powers with the rest of the trading partners.
Who are in the trade agendas?
Remember, RCEP is not firstly proposed by China. But because China is the largest economic power among all the negotiating parties, there exists perceptions that RCEP is solely a ‘Sino-centric’ initiative. Wrong. Known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it is currently a negotiated, integration-based free trade agreement between 10 ASEAN member-states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar) and 6 Asia-Pacific countries by which ASEAN already conducts free trade with in the last few years, notably China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. All combined, the trade agreement comprises nearly 30% of the world’s GDP (approximately 22.5 trillion US$). The primary goal of RCEP is to integrate the existing ASEAN FTAs with the neighboring countries into a single platform. There is a disparity among the countries, of course: Myanmar’s GDP per capita is less than 900 US$, while the levels in Singapore and Australia alone are more than 60-fold larger. Some countries like Cambodia and India also have not developed strong industrial bases, especially in manufacturing, if compared to major powerhouses like Japan and South Korea. That is why the negotiating parties are willing to be more pragmatic in enforcing the trade rules, in particular ensuring that a certain degree of protectionism can be applied to protect sensitive industries, particularly state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the still-dominant driving economic forces in countries like China and Indonesia.
On the other hand, TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) brings in a fewer number of countries compared to the former. Firstly negotiated by Brunei, Chile, Singapore, and New Zealand in 2005, US only entered the negotiation phase near the end of presidency of George W. Bush in 2008. Since Obama’s term, the United States has increasingly played a more pivotal role in ensuring the passage of the agreement. Unlike RCEP, it is a rules-based agreement which, repeatedly touted by Obama administration, attempts to ‘enforce 21st-century gold standards in global economy and redefine international trade’. Currently, the agreement consists of United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand, all the while encompassing 40% of the world’s GDP (approximately 30 trillion US$). Other than TPP, there are also two other trade agendas that are currently being negotiated and proposed: a proposed massive trade agreement with European Union named as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), containing a larger 50% of the world’s GDP (almost 40 trillion US$), and the lesser-known TISA (Trade-in-Services Agreement), which will bring in 50 countries controlling 70% of the world’s GDP, enforcing a near-complete trade liberalization in service industries.
Source: The New York Times
The idea of TPP is nothing short of controversies, of course. American service industries, and to some extent, also Singaporean, Japanese, and New Zealand will definitely reap the benefits, but median income wages for US manufacturing workers will slightly decline. This is obvious, because the ‘compulsory rules’ in liberalization will force companies to shift production to destinations offering lower labor costs, such as Malaysia, Peru, or Vietnam. Agriculture also remains hotly debated as US and Japan are yet to reach any consensus about the privatization and end of subsidies for Japanese agriculture, while American automakers steadfastly demand any protection measures from competition with Japanese car giants. President Obama also promises that the TPP will enable strict enforcement of labor and environmental protection, but how strict will the rules be enforced remains an unresolved question (most of the drafts are not even released to public). This is particularly concerning given the red-flag reports about labor conditions in Malaysia, Vietnam, as well as in Mexico and Peru. Pharmaceutical prices are also a huge concern, as the Big Pharma insists on intellectual copyrights for the new drugs, therefore posing an obstruction to the creation of generic drugs in developing countries. The impact on state-owned enterprises, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, will be mostly detrimental as well, as the firms will be forced to compete, on equal playing terms, with multinational businesses, especially those from US and Japan themselves. Currency manipulation, never regulated in IMF but proposed to be a punishment-imposing mechanism in TPP, makes both Japan and Malaysia afraid.
Nonetheless, as the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) was eventually signed into law on late June, there is increasing possibility that the TPP will come into force by either the end of 2015 or the beginning of 2016. Even the passage of TPA is not by itself an absolute guarantee the TPP will be passed as well; the House Democrats will continue their ‘rebellion’ in upcoming votes (and there will be a presidential election next year). Still, the completion of this world’s largest free trade agreement, no matter how imperfect it is, will solidify Obama’s presidential legacy before he leaves the office.
Cold trade wars?
There is already much speculation if China and US are involved in some sorts of zero-sum game with the emergence of their TPP and RCEP trade agenda. If one looks at the fact that US does not participate in RCEP, and that China is not in TPP, one will simply take the easiest conclusion that there remains an ongoing ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in the aspect of the two countries’ relationship. Again, this is a matter of perception; such worldview is not necessarily correct, but neither it is wrong, too. There exists, indisputably, a ‘race’ for more international influence from both countries, especially in their economic relationships.
But one does not simply go into a single corner to understand the full picture: China has not fulfilled all the ‘gold standards’ required by US in TPP negotiations, and US does not even have an existing free trade agreement with ASEAN. It is true that only in the recent years that China has gradually attempted to embrace economic reforms in lieu of its slowing-down growth rate, but Rome is not built in a day. The state-owned enterprises, loathed as they are for the inefficiencies, remain the major driving force of Chinese economy, and simply letting them compete with global firms will be analogous to learning to swim in a pond when one does not yet learn to swim in a pool. US participating in RCEP will bring more disadvantages just because US has not yet proposed any FTA with ASEAN member-states (except Singapore), due to the trade diversion effects potentially taking place upon the implementation. And, we all know, American government will not (almost for certain) ‘compromise’ with their high, ‘gold’ standards, largely insisting on the rules instead of the integration.
Major compromise: let it be
In the current format, the only best thing that can be done so far is to let the TPP and RCEP negotiations go separately as usual. None of them has entered into force, realizing that there are just too many issues all the negotiating, concerned countries will have to talk about. Still, sooner or later, even if these agendas eventually fail, trade will still take place as usual among the countries, but just on a wholly different level of integration, and in a way that would be rather chaotic and difficult to integrate. Nonetheless, both China and US realize that these are not simply the fixed-ending initiatives; they are simply the first step to a mega-regional economic integration in the future. TPP will not be limited to 12 countries only, as RCEP is not simply for 16 countries. China has resurrected again the FTAAP (Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific) proposal in APEC 2014 Summit in Beijing. Once an American idea in bringing ‘harmonious’ integration among Asia-Pacific economies, the agenda failed in the early 21st century, given the perceived protectionism imposed by many of the countries at that time. That still exists, of course, to some extent, but given the increasing global economic integration brought about by globalization and disruptive technologies, one can no longer turn back the tide of time. United States can still play a major leadership role in Asia vis-a-vis China, only if the country is willing to let the latter integrate into the global stage. Still, to remain relevant in the world’s largest and most populous continent in a few decades to come, US should ensure that it can play an active economic role in more Asian countries, particularly in formulating a future US-ASEAN FTA. What I see is that US will only begin negotiating for such free trade agreement, if and only if ASEAN member-states can improve their trade regulations upon the adoption of RCEP in a few years. China, and other Asian countries, can also begin negotiating for upgraded versions of TPP, if and only if they can reform their economic structures, and ensure that the state-owned enterprises become more competitive, and more willing to improve their productivity rates. Only through hard compromises, can the TPP and RCEP eventually lead into FTAAP itself, which, I foresee, will take either one, or two decades, or even longer.
I’ve told you, it won’t be an easy, and nice, process. But still, an eventual integration is still minutely possible.