Opinion: Forget military alliances, it’s all about the economy, stupid

American and allied embassies across Asia have been scrambling for the past month to analyze and scrutinize the possible of entry of China into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

China formally applied to join the 11-member trans-Pacific trade pact last week.

This is, as many economic officers at various western embassies will tell you, a continuation of its efforts to become the dominant trading partner in the Asia Pacific region.

China already has its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement which it has signed with its Asian neighbors and tributaries.

China has aggressively pursued trade agreements with individual European countries as well as the European Union as a bloc. Beijing has also aggressively expanded its economic footprint in Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative.

But even as the members of the CPTPP ponder China’s entry into the bloc, questions have been raised by Asian policymakers, weary of China’s growing influence, about the United States’ reticence in engaging with current and erstwhile allies.

Since former President Donald Trump shot down the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiated by his predecessor, the United States has been in a constant state of withdrawal from both Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific.

President Joe Biden’s signal that he was going to concentrate the State Department’s efforts on the region has largely been fanfare with little engagement of regional allies.

The one major policy achievement of the Biden administration so far was a triple-alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US – hardly an engagement of regional players and once again reeking of the arrogance of the Anglo-American policymakers.

In fact, economically speaking, the US has hardly moved in its trade positions since Trump pulled out of the TPP. One wonders if China is right when it says that the US and its allies were once again engaging in Cold War mentality in the region rather than meaningfully and respectfully engaging the countries of Asia.

There are definitely allies to be had in this region – players who fear China’s hegemony, its B and R initiative that places countries into debt trap, and its growing military presence. But rather than pursue diplomacy with the leaders and countries that share these fears, America is once again making alliances with familiar friends, countries that have a long and oftentimes complicated relationship with Asia, rather than the Asians themselves.

While not overtly racists, one wonders if the State Department’s failures stem from a love of familiarity and lack of imagination.

Where does that leave Thailand

Thailand is not a part of the CPTPP but is a part of RCEP. It is also a target of Chinese aid, arms, and expansion. China has offered to build up its infrastructure (at terrible cost) and has supplied Thailand with medical expertise and aid during the pandemic.

Bangkok said on Monday that it is studying the impact of China’s proposal to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

“The subject of joining the CPTPP has been forwarded to the International Economic Policy Committee to consider,” said Oramon Sapthaweetham, Director-General of the Department of International Trade Negotiations.

Oramon stressed that the committee will include the latest development on China’s move to enter the group, which will expand the market scale of the trade area.

It is interesting to note that Thailand’s movement on the CPTPP was lethargic until China’s recent bid to join.

It should serve as a warning to the United States and its new alliance how much their influence has waned in the region.

Thailand, which brags about being the US’ older treaty ally in Asia, no longer cares what Washington does or wants. It cares more about Beijing’s will.

That will not change unless the United States meaningfully and willfully engages with partners in Asia on trade and policy.

The majority of Asians don’t care about alliance between Canberra, London and DC. In fact, many will cast a weary eye at defense pacts that impact the region in general – given how often Southeast Asia has become a proxy for wars between superpowers.

What the people of the region do care about is a firm upholding of democratic values (look at the Milk Tea Alliance), meaningful engagement on trade, and open markets for our goods. China will not offer any of those things. Will Washington?

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