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Hither and Yon

Civilization vs China and Russia: TPP is more than just a trade deal

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
SEOUL — The Trans-Pacific Partnership carries implications far beyond the commercial benefits that President Obama and others claim would result from it.
Arguments pro and con in terms of the advantages and disadvantages for each of the 12 countries that have signed on to TPP are sure to go on for years. The debate will intensify as others join.
Like the deal to stop Iran from producing nuclear warheads, TPP has shrill detractors and diehard advocates. Their point is basic. The agreement may not be perfect, they go on saying, but commercial interests everywhere will benefit ― as will millions sharing in easier access to cheaper goods.
But just think of the controversy surrounding the KORUS FTA. If South Korea joins the TPP, as may happen even though the South has so far stayed away, we may be sure the critics and rivals will accuse the South of not abiding by the terms. They will, of course, talk about all those barriers, hidden, bureaucratic, political and cultural, to the free entry of foreign goods.
Maybe so, maybe no, but who can believe that a trade pact drawing these dozen countries together will just be for common commercial cause?
We know that China and Russia are really not going to want to share in the TPP even though we’re told they too can join, maybe. Don’t they have their own commercial pacts rivaling the TPP? Won’t they both be spreading their own exclusive influence in the quest for wealth and power in competition with any trade pact that’s anchored by the United States?
Those questions lead to the broader one of rising confrontation across the region.
South Korea is caught in the middle, between its relationship with its military ally, the U.S., and its growing ties to China, by far the South’s greatest trading partner.
Washington may not like it, but who can blame President Geun-Hye Park for going to Pyongyang for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, witnessing the great celebration beside Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin? Now, to show no hard feelings, she’s off to Washington next week to chat with President Obama in the White House.
We may be sure the TPP will be somewhere on the agenda when Park and Obama get down to some of the problems in U.S.-South Korean relations.
Did South Korea have to avoid joining the TPP ― and will South Korea finally go along? The argument in Seoul is that South Korea already has the KORUS FTA so who needs the TPP? In fact, American business interests complain mightily that the KORUS FTA hasn’t resolved a lot of trade problems while the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea grows ever more gargantuan.
Nobody wants to admit it, however, but the TPP isn’t just about trade. It’s a kind of grand alliance in which a galaxy of nations confront the two great Asian powers with their own Pacific interests ― China and Russia.
President Xi left no doubt during his American visit that he’s not going to accept U.S. entreaties to stop building air strips and other stuff in the South China Sea even though he assured Obama that China was not engaged in ”militarization.”
Russia’s President Putin, going to war on behalf of the brutal Assad regime in Syria, may be expected to be no less aggressive in Northeast Asia if given half a chance. It’s easy to imagine Putin promising fresh support for the North Korean regime, which Moscow left in the lurch after the demise of the Soviet Union. Hyped-up displays of Russian air and naval power, as in the days of Soviet rule, would surely serve as a warning of the renaissance of Russian power in the Western Pacific.
Opposite all this potential for mayhem is that other great regional power ― Japan. Hasn’t the Japanese Diet or parliament approved a measure giving the government the authority to send troops overseas despite the strictures of Article 9 of the post-WWII ”peace” Constitution banning armed force anywhere? Doesn’t Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pursue a hard line in order to defend Japanese interests against China? And isn’t Japan worried about China’s claims to the Senkakus, those small islands in the East China Sea that the Chinese call Diaoyu?
Japan, of course, was glad to sign on to the TPP. The pact would open the U.S. and other markets to ever more Japanese motor vehicles and parts while Japan opens its own markets just a little to agricultural products, including rice and beef. At the same time, Japan hopes to strengthen its defenses by building a new air station in Okinawa for the U.S. Marines in defiance of popular protests led by the Okinawa governor.
In the midst of the maelstrom, though a U.S. ally, Korea would surely try to avoid getting caught in the storm. The U.S.-Korean alliance may be strong, but Park, in Washington, has to intimate to Obama, that Korea will join the TPP as long as it doesn’t have to go to war for it.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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