Why is Biden hesitating to challenge China as East Asia's major trade partner?

Why is Biden hesitating to challenge China as East Asia's major trade partner?
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One of the many critiques of President BidenJoe BidenJan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms MORE’s mismanagement of what became America’s unceremonious and chaotic exit from Afghanistan was his misplaced insistence that he was bound by the Trump administration’s agreement to withdraw all American troops from that country by May 2021. Many analysts have pointed out that Biden did not hesitate to countermand other Trump national security and foreign policy decisions, including returning to the Paris Climate Accords and seeking to restore the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  

Much like his insistence that he had to abide by the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, Biden also has not reversed Trump’s 2017 executive order, issued on his first day in office, to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP was a comprehensive trade agreement that included 11 countries. Of them, seven — Japan, Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru — are American treaty partners. The remaining four — Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam — all have excellent relations with Washington. Most notably, however, the pact did not include China. The TPP was a signature Obama administration accomplishment, and signaled that America’s so-called pivot to Asia was as substantive as it was rhetorical. 

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Congress did not approve the agreement, as both then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money — Democrats tee up Senate spending battles with GOP The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Treasury to use extraordinary measures despite debt ceiling hike MORE (R-Ky.) and then-Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden's Supreme Court commission ends not with a bang but a whimper Hispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act MORE (D-N.Y.), the latter bowing to the wishes of many Democrats who were reflecting trade union concerns, both opposed the deal. Indeed, the final four candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries — Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersManchin meets with Sanders, Jayapal amid spending stalemate America can end poverty among its elderly citizens Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair MORE (I-Vt.), Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas) and, of course, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE — all opposed ratifying the TPP in its current form. If ever there was a signal to East Asia that the United States was beginning to look inward, the bipartisan opposition to TPP ratification certainly was it.

Trump’s decision to back out of the TPP created an opening for China. Beijing quickly reassembled the nations that had agreed to join the TPP and together they created what now is called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Essentially, China replaced the United States as the leading organizer of Asian free trade. At the same time, it was estimated that the opportunity cost of American withdrawal from the TPP amounted to a loss of real GDP of 0.76 percent, amounting to some $107 billion, resulting from a decrease in its total exports of 8.43 percent and a decrease in total imports of 6.31 percent.  

As vice president, Biden supported the TPP. Yet during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Biden backed away from his earlier position, only going so far as to argue the need for renegotiating the agreement to satisfy union interests and to allow for greater environmental protections. Since he assumed office, Biden has done very little to indicate that he is serious about America’s re-entering the TPP under any circumstances. And while Washington dithers, China strengthens its hand as it seeks to become East Asia’s leading trading partner. 

Indeed, it is noteworthy that Japan announced last week that the United Kingdom will meet later this month with members of the CPTPP, including China, to discuss London’s application to join the agreement. The British desire to join the CPTPP reflects its efforts to enhance its economic profile in the Asia-Pacific in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the European Union.

Trump’s rash withdrawal from TPP was a boon for Beijing, whose quest for world economic leadership is at least as pronounced as its military buildup. Biden’s hesitancy regarding the agreement simply solidifies China’s economic position in the region. 

If Biden is serious about countering Beijing’s efforts to dominate East Asia, he should take note of Britain’s initiative and take whatever steps are necessary for America to rejoin the CPTPP, even if China is now a member. Doing so would complement Washington’s announced plans to enhance its military deterrent in the region and would underscore to its friends, allies and partners that it remains a reliable partner at a time when the Afghanistan fiasco has shaken their faith in America’s credibility.  

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.