Brian Lee CrowleyThe yet-to-be-approved Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is about much more than an economic link for countries on both sides of the Pacific, writes Brian Lee Crowley.

By Brian Lee Crowley, August 12, 2016

What do the impending failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and China’s bad behaviour in the South China Sea have in common? Everything. And if TPP is indeed going to fail Canada and other like-minded countries will need to come up with a fallback strategy and be quick about it.

In what way are TPP and the South China Sea linked? Take the trade agreement first. Although its name suggests it would link the trading nations on both sides of the Pacific, a conspicuous absence among the 12 nations that have approved the deal in principle is China, a giant in international trade.

This was no oversight. On the contrary all the countries who are party to the agreement have been driven to the negotiating table by two things. On the one hand a hope of increased trade opportunities in more foreign markets, but on the other a shared urge to settle that the rules of international trade will be based on markets, the rule of law and multilateral agreement.

If TPP is indeed going to fail Canada and other like-minded countries will need to come up with a fallback strategy and be quick about it.

China is no believer in these principles. Moreover it vastly prefers dealing with its neighbours on a one-on-one basis, where they will always be the more powerful party at the table. The multilateralism that inspires the TPP is anathema to China because it allows other countries to work together to create effective counterweights to China’s power. This was part of the clear strategy motivating the TPP negotiations in the first place.

In fact it is not at all implausible to argue that TPP was to be the first building block on which might be constructed a community of like-minded Pacific countries seeking to constrain China’s power in military, security and diplomatic terms in addition to the purely economic.

If the US presidential election campaign continues on its present course, however, one can only conclude that this strategy is in tatters. Both major party candidates have now come out against TPP, despite the fact that Hilary Clinton was in charge of American diplomacy during most of the key phases of the TPP’s development, and the agreement itself is one of the few concrete achievements of President Obama’s pivot to Asia.

TPP was to be the first building block on which might be constructed a community of like-minded Pacific countries seeking to constrain China’s power

Optimists will claim that this doesn’t really matter. After all, Canada already has a bilateral trade agreement with Korea and one half-negotiated with Japan. Why not just negotiate more such deals?

Because that assumes that the primary motivation of TPP was in fact trade, and not the first tentative gropings towards a regional community of like-minded countries that could stand toe-to-toe with China on a wide variety of files.

This is where the South China Sea comes in. Beijing has unilaterally laid claim to a number of islets and rocks in that Sea and dredged the surrounding waters to build up artificial islands that clearly have military capability. This they are doing in the face of protests by their neighbours who claim many of these same islets and waters, but also in the face of legal rulings that China’s actions breach international law.

This couldn’t have been better timed to remind other Pacific nations what is at stake when we lack the institutional architecture of collective security to manage, peacefully, China’s rise.

ASEAN is a regional organisation that might ultimately come to play such a role, but it doesn’t include many of the key countries, such as Japan, Korea, America and Australia and, more importantly, it includes several Chinese allies. Since ASEAN operates by consensus, that gives China destabilising influence.

Whether the answer is to pull ASEAN more firmly into the liberal trade camp, or to resuscitate TPP or something else, one thing should be crystal clear: the answer cannot be the Pacific nations dealing one on one with China. Canada, like the others, would be foolish and ill-advised to show up in the dragon’s lair alone. That simply puts China in the driver’s seat, as the South China Sea shows.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca