A major election issue that subsided in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting is going to be grabbing headlines and filling news cycles in America for the remainder of this winter.
That issue — the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — will involve one of the largest and most revolutionary free trade agreements in living memory.
The TPP is comprised of 12 member states that represent 40 percent of global economic activity and conduct 25 percent of global trade.
The agreement will accomplish everything from removing almost 18,000 trade barriers to empowering digital industries to expand more easily into foreign markets.
Although Fortune has called the TPP, “the 21st-century trade agreement,” there are several presidential candidates who hold critical views on the matter.
Bernie Sanders has stated that the TPP is “a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations.”
Hillary Clinton, who once described the agreement as the “gold standard,” has since retracted her support for the TPP. Donald Trump had lamented that China would “take advantage of everyone” using the TPP during one of the televised Republican debates, despite the fact China is not a part of the TPP.
Trump faced criticism for his mistake, but he should not have been blamed too harshly. Reading between the lines, the expansion of Chinese economic and military influence in Southeast and Central Asia was the real reason for negotiating the TPP.
Since this is an election year, candidates and pundits alike will continue to upbraid the agreement for what it fails to deliver to the American people.
However, the TPP should be appreciated as a masterstroke for advancing American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and Latin America that will pay dividends in the coming decade.
Two of the most visibly muddled foreign policy issues of Obama’s second term — Ukraine and Syria — were muddled because of an overreliance on American public opinion.
The categorical rejection of intervention in Syria despite President Obama’s address to the nation in 2013 advocating for retaliatory action was damaging for America’s credibility abroad.
It is now evident to many observers that U.S. foreign policy, irrespective of international law or global security, can be dictated largely by media-driven public opinion when troop deployment is involved. Therefore, the U.S. should begin to clearly define and enhance our national interests by increasing trade, rather than aid, in those countries with values and goals similar to ours.
This strategy restores the commitment of the U.S. to the security of aspiring democracies.
The TPP is just the mutual trade agreement that is needed to support these interests. Maritime trade through the South China Sea is worth $5 trillion annually.
The Strait of Malacca, the one-and-a-half nautical mile-wide artery connecting the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, sees three times more shipping traffic than the Suez Canal.
The expansion of U.S. trade with countries in this region elevates the importance of the South China Sea and makes its protection and the protection of those countries that surround the sea a crucial facet of foreign policy.
The TPP also serves as an important bargaining chip for American foreign policy in Latin America.
The best example of the TPP’s strategic value is apparent in the case of Colombia.
Colombia has served as an American partner in the war on drugs and has received $5 billion in US aid for its security forces since 2000.
The Colombian government voiced its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2010, but has been discouraged by the current desire to admit new members only from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.
As Colombia works to implement its peace agreement with leftist FARC insurgents, there is value in the US advocating for Colombia’s admission to the TPP. This advocacy would develop our bilateral relationship, improve U.S.-Cuba relations, display our opposition to Venezuela’s subversion of parliamentary democracy and improve Colombian human rights by making its government more accountable to the international community.
To revisit the state of affairs in East Asia, China currently claims the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory based on a demarcation called the “Nine Dash Line.”
To reinforce this assertion, China has begun constructing artificial islands for commercial and military purposes.
This power grab is not only illegal under international law, but has also caused serious concern among many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, all of which are either a party to, or prospective members of, the TPP.
This overlap of strategic and economic interests explains why, although the TPP may not be economically perfect, it is prudent for the U.S. to approve the agreement for the purpose of providing a diplomatic bulwark against future Chinese aggression.
If the U.S. fails to ratify this trade agreement, it could jeopardize our strategic shift to Asia and leave potential allies unprotected in the face of unmitigated expansion. These considerations should be kept in mind when campaigning politicians in the coming year argue the TPP is “disastrous.”
The TTP is as much about safeguarding our national security as it is about reducing our trade deficit.