Few Americans paid attention last week as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak traveled to China to witness the signing of a host of business agreements between Chinese and Malaysian companies. They should have, because Razak’s pilgrimage to Beijing is likely to be repeated by other Asian Pacific leaders if Washington lets President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership die.
In addition to more than 20 agreements covering a range of activities including e-commerce, solar panel manufacturing, agriculture and education, Malaysia wants to buy 10 littoral warships from China for $300 million. Just last month, Malaysia announced it was scraping joint development of an amphibious force with the help of the U.S. Marine Corps as part of a big defense budget cut.
This would be the first major defense contract between China and Malaysia, despite continuing tensions in the South China Sea. And it’s not an isolated incident. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently rankled Washington by calling for a “separation” between the long-time allies. He called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Philippines within two years, despite his country’s contentious dispute with China over its actions in the South China see. In July of this year an international tribunal declared China’s military development of a Philippine island illegal.
Both of these developments suggest America’s standing in the region is waning, leaving Pacific Rim countries to be sucked into Beijing’s orbit. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said, the United States does have a potent “soft power” option to counter China’s flexing of its economic and military muscles. It’s the TPP agreement, which he has called the commercial equivalent of having another U.S. carrier in the region. Other Asia leaders have echoed this assessment.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said economic investments are inseparable from defensive commitments. In March, he told the Wall Street Journal “if you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?” New Zealand Prime Minister John Key agreed, warning that if the United States “abdicates leadership in the region” by failing to sign the TPP regional governments will have to pursue other options. China is already prepared to offer a replacement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that includes all Asian TPP signatories in its ongoing negotiations.
Our friends and allies in Southeast Asia are actively seeking increased economic opportunities in the form long term commitments. Through the TPP they have signaled our government, businesses, and ideals as their first choice. If the U.S. does not follow through with this commitment that enforces open competition, higher labor standards, and better environmental protections, these governments have demonstrated clear evidence they will be forced to pursue options with a power that respects none of these ideals while it actively infringes upon their sovereignty. The TPP opens up not just fair economic opportunities, but demonstrates the U.S.’s commitment to the welfare of the region.