U.S. Ambassadors in Asia Make Final Plea for Dead Trans-Pacific Trade Pact

Customers lining up outside an Apple store in Tokyo. The Trans-Pacific Partnership would have set new terms and standards for trade for the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, including Japan. Credit Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When hope of enacting the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact ended in November, Max Baucus, the United States ambassador to China, was among the officials who had to grapple with disappointment.

The partnership, called the TPP, was a hallmark of the Obama administration. It would have been one of the largest trade agreements in history, covering about 40 percent of the world’s economy and setting new terms and standards for trade for the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. China was not included but would have been able to join.

When President Obama plucked Mr. Baucus in 2013 from the United States Senate to be the ambassador to China, he chose a politician with a record of promoting free trade. As ambassador, Mr. Baucus supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and tried to dampen alarm in China over the American-led effort.

Last week Mr. Baucus took the unusual step, with five other American ambassadors in the Asia-Pacific region, of sending an open letter to Congress asking its members to support the pact in an effort to cement a leadership position for the United States in regional trade and not yield that role to China, which has the second-biggest economy in the world.

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In their letter, the ambassadors warn that “walking away from TPP may be seen by future generations as the moment America chose to cede leadership to others in this part of the world and accept a diminished role.”


Max Baucus, the United States ambassador to China. Credit Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

“Such an outcome would be cause for celebration among those who favor ‘Asia for the Asians’ and state capitalism,” it added.

This passage critiques President Xi Jinping of China, who has said that Asia should be run by Asians and is a champion of a Chinese economic system that relies on industrial policy. (Mr. Xi was scheduled to appear on Tuesday at the pro-free-trade World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the first Chinese leader to do so.)

The 2016 presidential race was shaped by anti-globalization trends. Donald J. Trump promised to destroy the pact if he became president. Hillary Clinton also denounced it, even though she supported a form of it as secretary of state.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said after the election in November that Congress would not take it up. That meant it was dead.

The letter by the six ambassadors, all of whom are political appointees who leave their jobs on Friday, was symbolic. It put them on record supporting Mr. Obama’s plan more than a year after the trade chiefs of the nations involved endorsed the pact. Following is the text of the letter:

An Open Letter to Members of Congress:

Seventy-five years ago last month, an attack on the United States set us on the path to becoming the Asia-Pacific power we are today. As U.S. Ambassadors assigned to the region, we interact daily with governmental, business, and civil society leaders who appreciate profoundly the role the United States has played in underpinning the region’s security and prosperity ever since. These same leaders are now asking an alarming question: Will we relinquish our mantle as the pre-eminent force for good in the planet’s most dynamic region? The cause for their concern — possible U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We believe their fears are justified, that walking away from TPP may be seen by future generations as the moment America chose to cede leadership to others in this part of the world and accept a diminished role. Such an outcome would be cause for celebration among those who favor “Asia for the Asians” and state capitalism. It would be disastrous for supporters of inclusive politics, rule of law, and market economics — and for U.S. national interests.

Let’s be clear. The alternative to a TPP world is not the status quo. Others are actively engaged in setting the rules of commerce in the Asia-Pacific region without the United States. In addition to its massive Eurasian infrastructure initiative, China is working on a trade pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with fifteen other countries, many of whom are TPP signatories. RCEP is a much lower-standard agreement that, in the absence of TPP, would likely serve as the template for economic integration in Asia and shift trade away from America, which would face higher tariffs. That would mean less U.S. exports and more jobs moving overseas.

TPP would not just cut tariffs for U.S. products. Unlike RCEP, it would compel stronger intellectual property rights, limits on subsidies to state-owned enterprises, and protection of worker rights, the environment, and a free and open internet. These enforceable commitments would give a leg up to U.S. companies already adhering to high standards — and the U.S. workers who make them the most productive in the world — and provide a powerful lever for change that we are unlikely to replicate in any other form in the near future. Without them, our companies will face even more competitive disadvantages in Asia’s booming markets.

The blow to our strategic position is even more worrisome. This is not speculation. To turn our back on our allies and friends at this critical juncture, when the tectonic plates of regional power are shifting faster than ever, would undermine our credibility not only as a reliable trade partner, but as a leader on both sides of the Pacific. It would also create a potentially destabilizing void that might even lead to conflict, an outcome which would hurt everyone in the region, including China.

The bottom line is this: TPP is good for American workers, American values, and American strategic interests. We urge the Congress to work with the new administration to find a way to realize its many benefits before the window for doing so closes. As we reflect on more than seven decades of U.S. sacrifice and stewardship in the region that will define our destiny in coming decades, we should understand that, if we fail to answer today’s call, history will pose a stern question — why did America forsake its best chance to shape the Pacific Century?

Signed by: Max Baucus, ambassador to China; Nina Hachigian, ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Japan; Mark Lippert, ambassador to South Korea; Mark Gilbert, ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa; and Kirk Wagar, ambassador to Singapore.

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