This morning, with little fanfare, the United States and 11 other nations announced they had reached a final agreement on the much discussed and meticulously negotiated trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is remarkable in its scale and scope, but equally remarkable have been the ordinary issues prolonging its adoption — dairy products in New Zealand, auto parts in Mexico, questions of patent regimes and new medicines. The devil is in the details, of course, and finding common ground between two nations, let alone a dozen, is rarely easy. And as difficult as the negotiations were, equally contentious political debates will soon begin in each of the new trade agreement's member countries.
The TPP was once seen as the centerpiece of the United States' "pivot" to Asia. It was a clear response to rising Chinese economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region and a push by Washington to gain increased access in Southeast Asia, one of the few dynamic markets in the world. But in recent months, the political aspects of the TPP have been played down by all involved, even by China. Rarely is the TPP described as an anti-China trade bloc any longer — unsurprising, given the significant amount of trade each TPP member does with China. There is also increased talk of the potential, however remote, of China's membership. This may all change now that the TPP has moved beyond the theoretical to the actual — or at least to the stage where the text will soon be revealed and domestic constituents will take over the role of debate.
Still, the political aspects of the TPP remain, no matter how each country's representatives try to downplay their implications. The TPP was not initially a U.S. invention; it was a small trade agreement among Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei. But as the United States started looking closer at the need to counter China's regional economic expansion, at least to reassure U.S. allies in the region if not to avoid falling behind the trade curve, the TPP presented an opportunity for Washington to take hold of a regional initiative and give it a new purpose. This was not the undertaking of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. It was initiated by the George W. Bush administration, near the end of his term, as Washington was able to focus back on the situation in Asia and begin to end its preoccupation with the Middle East.
The "pivot" was a recognition that the global geopolitical landscape was changing. The global center of gravity had shifted through the end of the Cold War to the present, moving from Europe and the North Atlantic westward, with the Pacific equaling and then surpassing the Atlantic in regard to international trade, and thus placing the Americas, and the United States, squarely in the middle. The rise of China, following on the heels of the Asian Tigers and Japan, contrasted strongly with the near economic exhaustion of Europe.
With the economic dynamism came an alteration to the balance of power. China's economic growth exerted its own pressure on Beijing, prompting and facilitating the nascent expansion of the Chinese military from a domestic security force to the early stages of an international expeditionary force. The U.S. global dominance that seemed set with the end of the Cold War was being challenged more formally than by terrorists and militants in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not to say that China is an equal military power to the United States, and its expansion abroad remains in the very earliest of stages, but the United States is under no illusion about the growing regional implications of rising Chinese military power. Nor has it forgotten the example of Japan's rapid rise to military prominence during its emergence at the dawn of the 20th Century.
The TPP — alongside the U.S. engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the political rehabilitation of Myanmar, the encouragement of Japanese "normalization" and expanding security cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines — is part of the same response to shifting international patterns. The TPP may not be specifically about squeezing China out of its increasingly substantial economic role in the Asia-Pacific, but it is certainly in recognition of the rising significance of the region, and the challenges confronting an emerging power on the regional and global stage. China is a major power emerging a century late, long after it is fashionable to be seen as rising, expansionary or even imperialistic. The perception and responses are in part shaped by 19th and 20th century ideas of emerging powers, zero-sum games and global balances. But they are equally shaped by the new realities of integrated global markets, the heavy economic interactions and interdependencies between erstwhile competitors, and the evolving definitions and applications of "power" on a regional and global scale.