Perhaps the most important decision of Donald Trump’s presidency happened early on after he took office.
Months after he swore an oath to protect and defend the constitution, he pulled the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership which the Obama administration had been working tirelessly towards.
The TPP, while not perfect by any means, contained clauses which placed safeguards on working conditions and worker’s rights for member nations.
The United States pulling out of the TPP meant that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP became the predominant free trade agreement in the region.
Negotiations began on the RCEP over eight years ago and it was finally signed by all member nations, including Thailand, this past weekend.
Led by China and ASEAN nations, the RCEP’s worker protections are not nearly as stringent as those of the TPP. Neither are the safeguards on intellectual property and copyright laws – clear signs of Beijing’s influence on the negotiations.
More importantly, the United States’ withdrawal from multilateral engagements within the region has thrust China fully into the driver’s seat in the Asia Pacific.
Now Beijing’s hegemony is in the ascendency, economically with the RCEP and politically with China’s Belt and Road Initiative which has already placed several ASEAN nations into its debt traps.
China may not even need to flex its military muscle in the South China Sea, something which Beijing views as a major foreign policy issue, if it plays its economic cards right.
With a new president-elect due in the White House early in 2021, the United States faces a monumental task getting back into the picture in the Asia Pacific region.
It is unclear how Biden will proceed on courting the region but the incoming president has already signaled that he is willing to roll back some of Trump’s trade-war policies with Beijing.
Whether this means that the Biden government will avoid confronting China and will go back to the Obama era engagement policies remains to be seen.
Doing so could be disastrous politically for Biden given China’s human rights abuses which have come to light in recent years including their policies in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang provinces.
But continuing to confront Beijing on trade while courting erstwhile allies will be difficult with economies in the region more closely integrated with China because of RCEP.
Perhaps Trump’s legacy in this region will not be his confrontational rhetoric with China or his courting of North Korea but his shortsighted protectionist policies which saw the United States voluntarily give up the lead to Beijing.