In the first week of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order removing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was, at the time, the biggest free trade agreement in the world, with Japan, South Korea and Australia among the members. This week, China managed to sign on to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, creating the current biggest free trade zone in the world, consisting of countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Trump’s “America First” policy contributed to America’s most embarrassing commercial failure in modern history. Although its impact in trade terms won’t be that significant in the short and middle terms, the implications in terms of soft power, diplomatic relations and international trading rules are important. The idea of the RCEP came about to counteract the United States’ attempt to establish rules and regulatory business standards outside of China through the TPP, which America had negotiated with China’s most important neighboring trade partners.
Trump’s strategic error in taking the U.S. out of the TPP wasn’t wasted by China; now, China presents itself as a key regional example and promoter of the trade reconciliation agenda, not only in Asia, but also in the rest of the world.
While the American trade policy of the last four years was focused on giving work to business associates and celebrating cosmetic changes to deals which already existed, China actively extended its commercial relations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, with virtually no counterbalance from the U.S.
It’s possible that Joe Biden could reverse some of the harm caused, but he’ll be doing it in the face of an important challenge. Trump wasn’t the only person championing America’s exit from the TPP during the 2016 election cycle; Bernie Sanders, a presidential hopeful from Biden’s party and the unofficial spokesman for the progressive branch of the Democratic Party, was also vocal in his wish to remove the country from the agreement, without consideration for the diplomatic strategy this would require.
This only serves to augment the dangerous reality Biden will have to confront when he takes control of the White House: The U.S. does not seem to be a credible trade partner for the rest of the world right now.
Negotiations for the TPP began in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration and the process culminated under Barack Obama; the work of almost eight years was nearly wiped out because of the impulses of one ill-informed person, who had been in power for less than a week at the time.
The same can be said for the Paris climate agreement, the nuclear deal with Iran, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, etc. The country that Biden will inherit when he arrives at the White House as president will be very different from the one that was there when he left as vice president.
The international credibility of the U.S., both commercial and diplomatic, is at a nadir, and it’s something over which Biden won’t have much control, given that nearly 74 million of his compatriots voted for another four years of Trump, after all that’s happened. This can only help China and Russia.