Multilateralism is alive and well in the Indo-Pacific

Introduction

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade agreement, also known as CPTPP 11, consists of 11 member states (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam).

The TPP agreement was a brain child of former US President Barack Obama. The main objective of the agreement was to bolster Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ vision, and it was signed in February 2016.

Significantly, one of the first decisions taken by US President Donald Trump upon his election was to withdraw from the agreement. The main reason cited by Trump for this decision was that the TPP agreement was not favourable towards US workers. During the Presidential campaign of 2016, Trump had repeatedly said that apart from leading to job losses of US workers, the agreement would undermine US independence.

In April 2018, Trump had stated that the US was willing to join the TPP if it was offered a better deal, but by then other countries which were part of the original TPP had moved on, and the CPTPP 11 came into force in the end of 2018 (after a majority of signatories, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore ratified the agreement).

How the agreement has enhanced trade linkages between member states

CPTPP 11 has helped in bolstering economic cooperation between a number of member states such as Japan, Canada, and Vietnam. During Shinzo Abe’s visit to Canada in 2019, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau made a mention of how the deal had enabled Canada to increase its exports threefold to Japan. Trudeau also stated that the deal had been beneficial for strengthening economic ties between Canada and Japan.

According to estimates, the agreement has also helped in bolstering trade not just between Vietnam and Japan, but also between Vietnam and Canada.

Efforts to keep supply chains intact

In the midst of the corona virus pandemic, CPTPP 11 member states like Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand have been working assiduously towards keeping supply chains intact.

Singapore has been exporting meat and medical products from New Zealand and has also been seeking to strengthen its economic ties with Japan in the midst of the pandemic. In April, several CPTPP 11 members — Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Brunei — issued a joint statement along with Myanmar (a non-CPTPP 11 member) on the issue of opening trade lines, including air and sea freight.

Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, along with non-CPTPP 11 member South Korea, have also been exploring the possibility of resuming essential travel.

What is also interesting is the success of some of the CPTPP 11 member states in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, especially Vietnam and New Zealand. As of May 16, 2020, Vietnam recorded 318 coronavirus cases and did not register a single death. The ASEAN nation began to ease the lockdown in the end of April. As of May 16, 2020, the number of coronavirus cases in New Zealand was 1149, and number of deaths was 21 (New Zealand ended a 7 week lockdown on May 14, 2020).

Efforts to rope in new members into the partnership

After the coronavirus pandemic, more countries are likely to get on board with the CPTPP 11, including the United Kingdom. In Asia, Japan is also trying to get Malaysia and Thailand on board with the CPTPP 11. The main aim of Japan, which will chair the CPTPP 11 in 2021, in getting these countries on board is reducing its dependence upon China (Tokyo imports over 20% of its intermediate goods from China). Thailand could be an important addition to the CPTPP 11 because it has been relatively successful in dealing with the pandemic as of now, and apart from its economic relevance, Thailand has been working closely with several CPTPP 11 members in their endeavor to resume essential travel.

Conclusion

The CPTPP is thus important for a number of reasons. First, it is providing an alternative narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — especially in the context of the Indo-Pacific (Japan’s desire to get new countries on board is a strong reiteration of the same).

Second, the CPTPP is a clear reiteration that globalization in a post-corona world is not likely to be driven by Washington and Beijing (many members of the partnership, such as Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam, have an important role to play).

Third, it is an interesting instance of an arrangement where not all member states have similar political systems, but are bound by common economic interests.

In the post-corona world, the relevance of the CPTPP is likely to rise, and it remains to be seen how Beijing and Washington react to this.