David Pilling has it right in the Financial Times: “the unstated aim of the TPP is to create a ‘high level’ trade agreement that excludes the world’s second-biggest economy,” while including practically everyone else with Pacific a coastline: Vietnam, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, Japan, and more.
Pilling argues that the prospective free-trade union will, in effect, both reverse and replay the story of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization—allowing Beijing to be singled out as an unfair trader on the one hand (thereby slowing its economic ascent) and on the other creating “a block so powerful and attractive that China will feel obliged to mend its errant ways in order to join.” Pilling doesn’t think TPP will achieve its grand objectives, whatever modest benefits it may confer on states like Vietnam (“giving it preferential market access”) and Japan (“through nudging industrial and agricultural reform”).
Actually, the last thing Japan needs is cheap, imported rice—through all the hardships of the past 20 years, the Japanese have remained a healthy and culturally distinct people. Why give that up for the 21st-century equivalent of $24 of wampum? Yet Japan may sacrifice much for the illusion of a multipolar East Asia—for China’s neighbors, strategic considerations are at least as much a motive here as strictly economic ones. The leverage TPP would give Asia’s second-tier powers over China would be minimal in real terms, but to whatever extent it helps them persuade themselves that they aren’t really second tier, it is something deeply to be desired. No doubt there are certain U.S. lobbies that gain something concrete from the agreement, but the opportunity to manipulate perceptions of power in the region is part of Washington’s motivation as well.
It’s an unnecessary as well as futile ploy: quite apart from the dubious economic merits of TPP, it will aggravate the Chinese, encouraging them to lash out with their own symbolic displays of power, while the reality of the East Asian balance is unchanged. China is in the paradoxical position of being vastly more powerful than any of its neighbors, yet being surrounded by so many suspicious states large and small—not only the likes of Vietnam and Japan, but such giants as Russia and India—that it will never enjoy the freedom to throw its weight around that the U.S. enjoys now or that the Soviet Union once wielded in Europe. China is both paramount and constrained; what TPP does is to give Beijing one more reason to resent its condition. That helps drive nationalistic provocations, and TPP will mean more of them.