China and 14 other Asian-Pacific nations have signed a massive free-trade agreement — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The pact covers about 2.2 billion people in the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as U.S. allies Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
The deal, announced Sunday, mostly lowers tariffs, with less focus on environmental, labor, intellectual property and other standards. Those virtues were features of another free-trade pact meant as a counterbalance to China’s rise — the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).
That 2016 deal was mostly negotiated on American terms and had the bipartisan backing of then-President Barack Obama and several Republican lawmakers who embraced the GOP’s traditional advocacy of the economic and geopolitical benefits of free trade.
But the TPP was demagogued by then-candidate Donald Trump and abandoned by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Once elected, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, while the remaining nations ratified it. It’s not clear if President-elect Joe Biden will spend the political capital to get the U.S. back into the deal.
Responding to the China challenge — including its predatory trade practices and egregious human-rights abuses — is something that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on. But unfortunately there isn’t a congressional majority for what would be a strong multilateral tool to respond to China.
Whether the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — the U.S.-European Union free-trade agreement proposed during the Obama era — could regain traction remains to be seen. But clearly the U.S. needs allies to better address China. The good news is it has them in Europe.
“The E.U.-U.S. relationship is not a luxury; it is a necessity,” Stavros Lambrinidis, the ambassador of the European Union to the United States, said during a WorldBoston Zoom webinar on Monday. “For decades we have had each other’s back; we are the friends of first resort.”
Indeed, NATO allies were quick to fight, and die, along with U.S. forces after it invoked the collective defense mechanism known as Article 5.
Nicholas Burns, who was the U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time, said during the webinar that, “I’m optimistic that you are going to see a resurgence in the transatlantic relationship.” Burns, now at Harvard, said that both sides “believe in common values and have common interests.”
That’s the view of the foreign ministers from France and Germany. In a Washington Post commentary, they wrote that “we must work together to deal effectively with China’s growing assertiveness, and also to maintain necessary avenues of cooperation with Beijing, to face global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. But this requires that the United States and Europe consult each other to coordinate our approaches; for instance, on human rights, digital infrastructure and fair trade.”
Biden, a trusted transatlantic advocate, will no doubt do his part. Congress, on a bipartisan basis, should do the same.