At the conclusion of the leaders’ summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Peru last week, the Pacific Rim trade group reasserted the importance of free trade in a joint communiqué. The APEC economies, including the United States, further committed to “keep our markets open and to fight against all forms of protectionism” — an intentional pushback to the growth of protectionist rhetoric, especially from the incoming administration in Washington. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed, most recently in a YouTube video released on Monday, to make America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the U.S.-led flagship free trade deal in the Asia-Pacific, a top priority for his administration. Trump’s vitriol has already eliminated any chance that Congress will ratify the pact during the remaining lame-duck period of the current administration.
America’s credibility in the region is already crumbling before the TPP’s official burial. The almost certain failure of the deal — at least in its current form — is a body blow to key U.S. allies, especially Japan, and other important regional states in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Singapore, that viewed the deal as the litmus test of Washington’s commitment to Asia. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it best on the potential of the TPP failing: “It is your credibility as an ally [that is at stake]. How can anyone believe in you anymore?”
Indeed, the election of Trump has rattled U.S. friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific who are worried that the incoming administration might signal Washington’s gradual retreat from the region. The range of concerns among U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, is vast: from the questioning of alliance burden-sharing, to the new administration’s plans for North Korea, or the black box that is Trump’s strategy — or lack thereof — for dealing with China.
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