This week at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Jakarta, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen criticized the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, Hun Sen’s denunciation of the TPP trade negotiations might actually have helped bring the TPP that much closer to completion, something the Cambodian leader probably did not intend.
According to Prashanth Parameswaran in the Diplomat, Hun Sen praised the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks, ASEAN’s attempt to harmonize its free trade agreements with China, India, Japan and Australia-New Zealand. However, he went on to denounce the TPP talks:
He stressed that TPP and RCEP should not contradict each other, but should be complementary. He then went on to blame the TPP for leaving half (or, more accurately, six out of ten) ASEAN countries outside of it. “We should review again…why Trans-Pacific Partnership did not include ten ASEAN members,” Hun Sen said. “What is the purpose, real intention of establishing [the] Trans-Pacific Partnership…that they include half of ASEAN to be partners…and leaving half of ASEAN outside. That’s a point I would like the World Economic Forum on Asia-Pacific to provide consideration and debate,” Hun Sen said.
Prashanth goes on to note the errors in Hun Sen’s analysis: (1) the different scopes and ambitions of the RCEP and TPP (which I discussed previously here); (2) the TPP is open to later accession by the other ASEAN members and other Asian countries, including China; and (3) the US has attempted to engage economically with the ASEAN countries not currently in TPP (although this is a very difficult task, since many of these countries are unwilling or unable to undertake the efforts needed to improve their trade and investment regimes to meet TPP standards, as I discussed here). All of these points are valid.
In fact, I would go on to say that Hun Sen’s comments have actually helped the TPP. The Obama administration currently is trying to get legislative authority from the US Congress to conclude the TPP talks and get any resulting agreement passed through the legislature through a special legislative process called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). Without TPA, the other TPP parties will refuse to conclude any agreement with the US, out of fear that the US Congress would later revise the agreement. Although much of the arguments in Washington about the TPP and TPA have centered on the economic effects on the US economy, an undercurrent of geopolitical concern flows through the discussion, particularly with regard to the roles of the US and China in the region. This was reflected in US Defense Secretary Carter’s comments on the TPP earlier this month.
The timing of Hun Sen’s comments therefore actually strengthens the geopolitical arguments in favor of the TPP. After all, if someone strongly perceived to be a pro-China voice in ASEAN (as evidenced during his 2012 ASEAN Chair term) is so against the TPP, then surely TPP must be a good thing (at least geopolitically for the US), goes this line of reasoning. If such arguments are enough to convince enough US legislators to support the TPA, this will bode well for the eventual successful completion of the TPP negotiations– and ironically, Hun Sen would have unintentionally helped bring this to fruition.