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Opinion

US retreat should not stop Asian economic integration

Creation of strong regional trading system should eventually lure Washington back

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, center in front row, ministers and officials pose for a group photo, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade ministerial meeting in Hanoi in May.   © AP

If the Asia-Pacific region is to sustain its remarkable economic integration over the next few years, it will have to go it alone without leadership from the U.S.

The political prospects for intraregional cooperation as leaders gather in Vietnam for the 25th APEC Summit on Nov. 11 are auspicious. Asia has strong leaders: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan just won re-election by a landslide and Chinese President Xi Jinping has further consolidated power ahead of his second five-year term. Asian economies are humming too. The region's growth rate is accelerating and the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank have each raised their growth projections in recent months.

Hopefully key Asian leaders will see their strong domestic positions as creating opportunities for bold, constructive moves in foreign policy, including smoothing fraught diplomatic relations which could then foster closer regional economic cooperation.

The question is whether Asia is up to the challenge of advancing without the U.S., given that President Donald Trump, who will be joining the APEC Summit, has pulled his country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatened to withdraw from the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement and even the World Trade Organization.

The answer is "yes," if Asia-Pacific governments follow their economic interests. Empirical estimates in a report we recently published with the Peterson Institute for International Economics show clear potential income gains from three large regional trade and investment projects now underway. Success on these initiatives might also attract new partners, especially in Europe.

Different paths

The three regional projects include the negotiations continuing among the 11 remaining TPP countries, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks among 16 Asian countries, and the China-led Belt and Road Initiative. Each could significantly benefit its members.

Japan's preferred project is the so-called TPP 11, which will set high standards for tariff reductions and other rules. It will of course generate more modest benefits than the original TPP agreement that included the U.S. But even a smaller TPP agreement could generate income gains of $157 billion annually for its members by 2030, mainly by increasing trade in machinery and agricultural products as well as through higher levels of investment.

If the TPP 11 were expanded to include five additional economies that have expressed interest in joining, namely Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan, then the gains from the resulting 16 member economies could rise to $486 billion annually, exceeding the benefits members stood to receive under the original TPP.

Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are running in parallel with the TPP process. Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and six Southeast Asian nations that would be part of TPP 16 are participating in RCEP talks alongside China, India and the four remaining members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The group has never included the U.S., but as the U.S. is disengaging from the region, RCEP is gaining momentum under the leadership of China. RCEP will likely result in smaller reductions in trade barriers than the TPP, but given its large scale, it would still generate $286 billion in annual income gains.

The third regional project underway is the Belt and Road Initiative. This envisions massive infrastructure investments to connect China with Europe via territories along the way. The realization of this project would create new rules and vast production systems led by Chinese companies. Many of these investments may be supported by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, another Chinese-led initiative of which neither the U.S. nor Japan is a member.

In sum, all three approaches could deliver significant benefits to Asia-Pacific economies and deserve attention from policymakers. Among them, the TPP 11 is of particular interest, because it could be concluded relatively fast, it could likely be extended, and it would buttress high-quality rules for the region's trading system. But all three projects could proceed in parallel, expanding the range of future options for the region.

Artless dealing

The Trump administration is not interested in regional projects and intends to negotiate only bilaterally. Moreover, observers have become very pessimistic about bilateral talks with the U.S. as a result of the extreme proposals that Washington is making in negotiations with Canada and Mexico, such as a demand that NAFTA effectively be re-ratified every five years.

Important as American markets are, the role of the U.S. in the global economy is declining. The growth, technological capabilities and global reach of Asia-Pacific economies have risen dramatically and are generating integration opportunities within the region itself. Meanwhile, the share of TPP 11 exports headed to the U.S. has dropped to 35% from 40% over the past two decades.

In fact, the U.S. might emerge as the most significant loser if Asia-Pacific regional integration proceeds without it. By 2030, the TPP's 12-member version was expected to increase U.S. incomes by $131 billion annually. These gains will not appear. Neither will the tighter rules on labor rights or intellectual-property protection or other parts of the level international playing field that U.S. negotiators fought hard to include in the TPP. Instead of becoming the biggest winner under the pact, the U.S. stands to suffer income declines of up to $6 billion per year.

The best way to bring the U.S. back into Asia-Pacific engagement is to develop a strong regional trading system with clear, high-quality rules. In time, given the dynamism of Asian economic growth, the U.S. is likely to realize the costs of letting its close relations with Asia decay, and another generation of American leaders could well reverse the impulsive decisions of the current administration.

Meanwhile, other large regional partners might step into the breach, further benefiting the region. The European Union has already concluded bilateral agreements with South Korea and Singapore, is close to a deal with Japan, and has negotiations underway with five other Asian countries. The disengagement of the U.S. presents it with a rare opportunity.

Working with the U.S. on Asia-Pacific economic integration would be better for all states concerned, but the region should not abandon its commitment to open markets and international trade just because of current U.S. policies. Integration is beneficial, and the stronger the regional economy becomes, the greater the influence that Asia will have in keeping the world trading system itself open.

Beyond benefiting Asia, regional integration will keep trade on the global agenda. International trade agreements often behave like dominos: Any new major accord tends to cause others to be negotiated as well. With successful new initiatives, Asia will gain influence in shaping global rules. If it uses that power wisely, a more stable and prosperous global system will result.

Prime Minister Abe has expressed his hope that the U.S. will rejoin the TPP at some point while remaining cautious about Washington's request for bilateral negotiations. Certainly, economic and strategic arguments would support Abe's wishes. In the meantime, however, the region has much to gain from forging ahead with its own initiatives. Japan and other Asia-Pacific economies should take an active leadership role in this process.

Peter A. Petri is interim dean and Carl J. Shapiro Professor of International Finance in the Brandeis International Business School and a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Michael G. Plummer is the director of SAIS Europe and Eni Professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins University and a nonresident senior fellow of the East-West Center. Fan Zhai is a former managing director at China Investment Corp.

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Do you live in Asia? How do you feel about Trump visiting the region?

  • Do you believe Trump can make Asia a more secure place?
  • Who will be the strongest political force in East Asia in 2030? US? China? Other?
  • Is the US an indispensable economic partner or should Asia become more self-sufficient?

Email us your answers to: nar01@nex.nikkei.co.jp

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