It was only a year ago that U.S. President Donald Trump moved to “permanently withdraw” the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. An about-face came, however, when Trump said all of a sudden that he would consider rejoining the free trade deal. His real intentions are unclear, but he would never withdraw his “America First” policies. He shouldn’t get a warm welcome and there is no way TPP members can renegotiate the trade pact.
In his address to the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump told government and business leaders he would be willing to negotiate with countries that are part of the TPP “individually, or perhaps as a group, if it is in the interests of all.” In an interview with CNBC TV on the eve of his address, he said: “I would do TPP if we made a much better deal than we had.”
Since he has repeatedly made similar remarks, the idea must not have just came to his mind. But it also does not appear that the shift in his stance was based on careful planning by his administration. We should continue watching his future remarks and actions, reactions within his administration and public opinion.
If the U.S. is to return to the TPP framework, it would mean a major pivot for the country’s trade policy focused on bilateral negotiations. It is easy to assume that there was an intense lobbying effort by business and farm groups who support the TPP deal. His remarks can be regarded as a move aimed at gaining support from the business community to recover his approval ratings before the midterm elections in November.
On the other hand, this is clearly a renegade. Withdrawing from the TPP deal was one of a few campaign promises that Trump has fulfilled. White working-class voters, who supported Trump enthusiastically with hopes for increased employment, would feel betrayed by his flip-flopping. The shock and opposition of his core supporters could further weaken the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the government and business circles, although seeming somewhat perplexed, reacted more or less positively to Trump’s apparently sudden change of mind. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had been holding onto a slight hope of the U.S. returning to the TPP agreement, welcomed Trump’s remarks.
We should not forget, however, that there is no change whatsoever in Trump’s America First policies. He said: “If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.” This reflects his willingness to renegotiate the pact. The Japanese government would try to persuade him into rejoining the existing TPP deal by stressing its benefits to the U.S., but does Trump have any intention to return to the TPP framework without changing the agreement at all? It is doubtful whether he can do so without hurting his administration.
The TPP agreement is seen by negotiators as a “delicate piece of glass artwork,” created by carefully coordinating complex interests of participating countries. Agriculture was a particularly sensitive sector for TPP members, and after intense negotiations they had reached agreement, largely reflecting demands from exporting nations of agricultural products including the U.S. The pact has the risk of hitting hard on Japan’s farm industry as is. Japan must be determined to refuse any renegotiation of the deal which could lead to further compromises. At the same time, the government should not make any compromises in favor of Trump in the bilateral economic dialogues with the U.S.