The disruption in US foreign policy that has occurred during the Trump administration, means it will not be possible for the country to easily repair its adversarial relationship with China. But with Joe Biden set to take over on January 20, 2021, could it herald a resurrection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that Biden will not be able to simply reset relations between the two countries back to the Obama era.

Richard Haas,
Council for Foreign Relations

“All of the global challenges have got worse, including climate change and global health. Cyberspace is still unregulated, the North Korean nuclear missile threat has got worse. And we no longer have Iran inside a diplomatic framework,” he said, speaking at the Milken Institute Asia Summit on December 8.

Plus, China has become bolder in its actions. Current US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said the US commerce department has issued 539 anti-dumping and other restrictive orders on Asian countries, of which 210 relate to China.

“It is essential that we continue to encourage freer and fairer trade, everywhere,” he said, a claim somewhat hard to square with the tariff war that the administration Ross was part of had helped to initiate.

Ross also took time to rail against multi-lateral trade deals such as the TPP and other global initiatives such as the Paris Accord on climate change.

DECOUPLING IMPOSSIBLE

Bob Corker, the former chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, offered a contrast when noting that the US economy cannot decouple from China.

Senator Bob Corker

“What we can do is set up limited agreements where there is some separation,” he said. “We can impose certain limits on some technologies and we should be looking at some constraints on what China has access to. That ought to be something we can work out with other nations.”

He argued that a collective approach from other nations to dealing with China is preferable to the Trump stance of tariff wars and tweeted threats.

“Throwing tariffs around and then sending welfare checks to farmers in the Midwest has been ludicrous. It’s become more of a personal thing between Xi [Jinping, China's president] and Trump and for that reason it hasn’t been nearly as effective,” he said.

While Ross claimed the TPP “would have increased the US trade deficit,” Corker hopes Biden will embrace it.

“Politics got a hold of the issue in 2016 (when neither Trump nor Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supported TPP),” he said. “It was a missed opportunity for our country to really put a lot of pressure on some of the things that China was doing – and to have an alliance that would have made a significant difference.”

“TPP makes enormous economic sense and enormous strategic sense,” added Haas. He pointed to the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, which embraced some of the same concepts.

“It would be a significant step forward if the Biden administration can figure out a way,” noted Corker. “Maybe it needs to be crafted differently, to take into account some of the current things that we’re dealing with (such as the dispute over Huawei and 5G). Rebuilding that global alliance would be a powerful step forward.”

RULES OF THE ROAD 

However, Corker warned that TPP, were the US to rejoin, would not be a cure-all, noting China’s own economic heft.

“China is also a big economic player for many of those global partners,” he added. “It’s going to be way more difficult to bring together, but it needs to be done if we are going to have an effective long term policy in dealing with China."

Haas suggested the US should engage in a private strategic dialogue, rather than “the sort of public speeches (critical of China’s trade and human rights abuses) that the secretary of state (Mike Pompeo) is so fond of”.

“This is the most important relationship, not just for the next four years, but the next 40 years,” he added. “The US and China need to work out the rules of the road, figure out where we can maintain the possibility of cooperation.”

However, there are still areas that cannot be compromised over, he added. “Where we’re going to push back – on the South China sea, over Taiwan or some of their human rights practices. I would put that high on the list of priorities.”