BEIJING — As trade tensions with China escalate, President Donald Trump has found new appeal in a regional trade pact he once called a “rape of our country.”
The pact’s members — including some of America’s most stalwart allies — might not make it so easy to come back.
Officials in Japan, Australia and New Zealand reacted coolly Friday to Trump’s remarks that he would be interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership after rejecting it so publicly just a year ago. While the United States would significantly bolster the pact if it signed up, its entry would require intense negotiations — and current members will expect significant concessions from the American side.
Comparing the multicountry trade agreement to “a glasswork,” Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, cautioned against any efforts to change it to accommodate Trump.
“It’s difficult to bring part of the pact and renegotiate it,” he said, calling it a “well-balanced pact” that carefully addressed the needs of the current 11 member nations.
“We’ve got a deal” already, said Steven Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, who added, “I can’t see that all being thrown open to appease the United States.”
An early test of the potential for the United States to rejoin could come as soon as next week, when Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and an ardent champion of the pact, is to meet with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
Trump’s renewed interest in the pact depends on whether the United States could strike a better deal than President Barack Obama did, Trump said in a Thursday night tweet. Still, negotiations with a group of longtime trading partners could hold appeal at a time of increasing tensions with China.
Trump faces a growing domestic backlash from corporations, farmers and others over fears that he is igniting a trade war with China, the United States’ largest single trading partner. Trump has warned that he could levy tariffs on $150 billion in Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to threaten retaliatory measures aimed at American soybeans, airplanes and other products.
Negotiating a new pact could take years. Still, rekindling negotiations could make it hard for China to play off the United States against its allies by promising to shift business from one to another if a trade war breaks out. It could be a way to assuage American farmers and businesses hurt by Chinese tariffs by assuring robust markets for U.S. products in countries that signed onto the deal, like Japan, Australia and South Korea. It would give the pact a great deal more heft and help position it as an economic counterweight to China, which increasingly dominates the Asia-Pacific region.
More broadly, it signals to the region that the United States is not giving up on trade, despite Trump’s sometimes harsh words. Even as officials in other countries expressed skepticism Friday, they said they would like to hear what Washington has to offer. “Japan would like to listen to the U.S.'s view,” said Suga, the Japanese official.
The barriers to a new pact are considerable. Many current members of the pact feel they already gave considerable ground to the United States to strike the original deal, particularly in sensitive areas like protections for pharmaceutical companies.
For its part, the Trump administration worries that the partnership will become a zero-tariff backdoor for Chinese goods into the U.S. market. It worries that companies that have moved much of their supply chains to China could make components there, ship them to a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership for assembly, then sell them in the United States tariff-free. It wants to toughen requirements for how much of the product is made within a participating country, which could make the goods less competitive.