Let’s set aside the car-crash TV distraction of Trumpmageddon for the moment (though ‘Trumpnado’ might better reflect the production standards) and briefly consider something more serious: life, death and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
If you want to get a sense of how the fate of the TPP is being linked to fundamental questions of US credibility among its allies and security and partners in Asia, watch this press conference with US President Obama and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (who is currently on a state visit to Washington).
The relevant segment runs from 44:30 to 51:08.
Lee’s extemporised comments on Japan (from 47:45) carry additional weight, because he is in effect talking on behalf of all of the TPP’s Asian partners, who have been led up the negotiating mountain.
‘Mr Abe came through and decided to commit. Why? Because he wants to help. He wants his country to benefit and to open up its markets… And you don’t do this.’
Here’s the critical bit. If the TPP fails, according to Lee, ‘it hurts your relationship with Japan, your security agreements with Japan. And the Japanese living in an uncertain world, depending on an American nuclear umbrella, will have to say: on trade, the Americans could not follow through; if it’s life and death, whom do I have to depend on? It’s an absolutely serious calculation, which will not be said openly, but I have no doubt will be thought’.
Frankly, if that doesn’t have impact, nothing will. Regardless of TPP’s economic merits, Obama understands the credibility point. The question is whether enough members of Congress can be persuaded to ratify it by a vote in the lame duck session.
The prospects for this look at best uncertain. This piece of extraordinary commentary by the respected conservative commentator Clyde Prestowitz, calling for the TPP to be ‘euthanized’, gives a sense of the headwinds now blowing against free trade, and by association US willingness to exert leadership in defence of the liberal international order.
Was Lee exaggerating to make a point? Possibly. But if there is a late outbreak of bipartisan statesmanship and TPP staggers over the line next January, Singapore can take a slice of the credit for reminding an American audience of what’s really at stake. The US has put its ‘reputation on the line’.
And, yes, Australia is also a TPP partner and an ally dependent on the US nuclear umbrella.
Photo: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla