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International relations

'TPP 11' emerges as bulwark against American protectionism

Japan and Mexico press to put trade deal into effect this year as others look to join

The rules hammered in the TPP-11 free trade agreement signed on March 8 are at risk of not keeping pace with fast-moving developments in worlds of technology and business.   © Reuters

SANTIAGO -- The revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact signed here Thursday is positioned to serve as a critical bastion against the Trump administration's protectionist policies amid prospects of taking effect this year and welcoming new members soon.

The members of the original agreement other than the U.S. reached the deal for the "TPP 11," which retains most provisions of the initial trade pact signed in 2016. The 11 nations, which together account for roughly 15% of global trade, aim to bring the pact into force within the year, rather than in 2019 as originally planned.

The U.S. withdrew from the TPP in January 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump took office.

The new agreement will take effect 60 days after six members ratify the deal. Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Japan and Mexico are eager to complete that process this year. "Vietnam could do so as well," a Japanese government source said.

TPP 11 appears "extremely timely," coming amid "protectionist pressures and pressures that could end up in what nobody wants, which is a trade war," said Heraldo Munoz, Chile's foreign minister. Trump authorized sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum the same day the pact was signed, drawing strong criticism from the TPP members.

Tran Tuan Anh, Vietnam's minister of trade and industry, said the signatories would oppose protectionism, and he predicted some other nations will join the pact later.

Ministers representing the TPP members said they "welcome the interest shown by a number of other economies wishing to accede to the agreement." At least five Asian economies -- South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan -- have expressed interest, in addition to Colombia and the U.K.

South Korea is as eager as any nation to counter the protectionist trend, fearing that American tariffs will hurt its steel industry. The country seeks additional trade ties to provide a buffer as it renegotiates the bilateral trade deal with the U.S. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper, in an article published online, urged Seoul to move toward joining the TPP in order to protect national interests.

The Philippines sees the agreement as a way to avoid falling behind Vietnam, a TPP member that has reached a trade deal with the European Union. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has expressed hope of joining the TPP as well. Indonesia, like those two other Southeast Asian nations, faces territorial conflicts with China in the South China Sea.

Colombia, a member of the Pacific Alliance trade bloc, may be the most viable 12th member of TPP 11. All other members of that group -- Chile, Mexico and Peru -- belong to the TPP, and Colombia fears falling behind in terms of market access for its agricultural products.

In Washington, more than 20 senators from Trump's Republican Party, including Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, sent a letter to the president in February urging him to rejoin the TPP. Major farming regions are traditionally Republican strongholds, and producers of goods such as rice, wheat and pork stand to lose out if a sizable low-tariff zone for those products develops without the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump celebrates after slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum Thursday.   © Reuters

The American dairy industry also could feel a pinch as TPP members start importing goods such as cheese and butter from major milk producers Australia and New Zealand. And beef from New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere could pose a greater challenge to exports from the U.S., particularly if Washington remains out in the cold.

Ripple effects from Trump's metal tariffs could intensify the overall economic pain. U.S. steel sheet prices are already 20-30% higher than the global average. Though the planned tariffs are projected to add 30,000 jobs in the metals sector, they also will raise materials costs and crimp earnings in industries such as automobiles and construction, costing the U.S. about 146,000 jobs on balance, according to consulting firm Trade Partnership.

Retaliatory measures from U.S. trading partners and a possible full-out trade war would bump the price of Trump's "America First" approach even higher.

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