More than Economics: TPP, Empire and Common Security Alternatives

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More than Economics: TPP, Empire and Common Security Alternatives

President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with leaders from the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the US Embassy in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2014. (Photo: Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Image)

"In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier." —Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

More than corporate profits have driven the now concluded negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement designed to integrate 40% of the world’s total annual production of wealth and resources. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas W. Freeman put it well when he explained that TPP is a “bulwark against rising Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region. [It] is about geopolitical influence, not about economics – even butchered economics.”

Unfortunately, the short-term geostrategic zero-sum thinking that led to Beijing’s exclusion from the TPP negotiations will intensify the competitive—military as well as economic—dynamics of U.S.-Chinese competitive interdependence. With the U.S.-China arms race and their competing “vital interests” the focus of U.S. policy should be on building long-term common security, not short-term and self-defeating tactical advantages.

TPP negotiations have been the economic edge of what then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed the United States’ “diplomatic, economic, strategic” pivot to Asia, later euphemistically rebranded “rebalancing” so as not to further alarm China’s elite.

Negotiated secretly between the U.S., Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and six other American and Asia Pacific nations it is certainly a robber baron agreement covering “trade in goods….technical barriers to trade….investment; services; electronic commerce; intellectual property [including pharmaceuticals]; labor” and more. We’re told it will be another month before all 30 chapters of the agreement will be available for public scrutiny, but leaks inform us that many of its provisions override important national regulations, trumping what remains of U.S. democracy and other nations’ security. It certainly “will lower tariffs, depress wages, and wreck the environment.

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The inevitable tensions between rising and declining powers have come with China’s rise over the past thirty years. After 150 years of being colonized; and suffering unequal treaties, racism, humiliation, and marginalization by the West and Japan, many in China understandably believe that to restore the Middle Kingdom’s historic role the norms established by the dominant powers of the past must be changed – not least the Bretton Woods financial system. Thus China initiated the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, new silk roads, and laid claim to 80% of the South China Sea in order to reestablish China’s geostrategic “World Island” in the heart of Eurasia. It should have come as no surprise that when Beijing was denied significant roles in the U.S. dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund it established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Promulgation of the TPP will spur China’s campaign to create the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement that excludes the United States. Rather than pursuing common security win-win solutions, the U.S. elite has sought military and economic full spectrum dominance. Former Obama National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained that, “the shift in focus toward the Asia-Pacific region isn’t just a matter of military presence. Rather, it’s an effort to harness all elements of U.S. power: military, political, trade and investment, development and values.”

From this perspective, the deployment of 60% of the Navy and Air Force to the Asia-Pacific region needs to be reinforced by other dimensions of U.S. power. But, as Donlon, Hillary Clinton and other advocates of soft as well as coercive military power understand that militarism is an unpredictable, limited and tinsel tool. By more deeply integrating non-Chinese Asia-Pacific economies and societies into those of the U.S., Washington’s national security planners are seeking to further amass greater economic power to “leverage” China and manage its rise by insulating Asia-Pacific nations from China’s growing gravitational pull and seductions. Losing the affections of Korea’s and other Asia-Pacific nations’ rising generations with—for example more South Korean students eager to study in China than in the U.S.—has long term implications. Among them is the risk of undermining alliances and losing the U.S. foreign military bases which have long played critical roles in the U.S. military encirclement of China and Russia, not to mention access to the technological resources of Washington’s Asia-Pacific allies.

Becoming the Asia-Pacific Hegemon

TPP and the Pivot are 21st century manifestations of a long history. At about the same time that Admiral Perry “opened” Japan with warships, future U.S. Secretary of State William Seward advised that if the U.S. was to replace Britain as the world’s dominant power, it must first control Asia. Merchant and military ships of that era required coaling stations to cross the Pacific, and competing colonial powers were in no mood to share these stepping stones to Asia with the American upstart. The U.S. path to empire was thus temporarily blocked, and Seward settled for his “Folly”—Alaska, the northern bridge to Asia.

By 1898 the Spanish empire was in decline. Pressed by Teddy Roosevelt, Senator Cabot-Lodge and the naval warfare theorist Captain Mahan, the U.S. had built the naval fleet needed to compete with Britain. In addition, a devastating great economic depression spurred financiers and farmers to demand the conquest of new markets – especially China, the holy grail of capitalism. They believed that millions of imagined Chinese consumers would keep U.S. factories operating 24/7, leading to full employment, social peace, and fattened profits.

In crisis there is opportunity. The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor by still unknown assailants provided President McKinley the excuse needed to wage war again Spain. Stepping stones to Asia: the Philippines, Guam, and Saipan were conquered (as were Cuba and Puerto Rico) and Hawai’i, with its Pearl of a harbor, was annexed. During the first half of the 20th century Washington, London and Tokyo jostled for advantage in Asia and the Pacific, culminating in Japan’s utter defeat and Britain’s loss of empire. The Pacific became an “American Lake,” and U.S. regional hegemony was reinforced by low and high-intensity warfare, CIA subversions, client governments, and by hundreds of U.S. military bases that encircled China and the Soviet Union.

Seventy years after the U.S. victory in the Pacific War, the client governments and bases remain, but China has “stood up”, challenging U.S. dominance economically, diplomatically and militarily. Critical to China’s continued economic growth, and thus its political stability, is the need to protect its sea lanes of communication across the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait, and the South China Sea that are needed to move oil from the Persian Gulf to fuel China’s economy, as well as to ensure the security of China’s largely sea-bound trade. And the South China Sea’s vast mineral resources are no small prize. Thus, memories of China’s century and a half of humiliation and of the U.S. naval blockade that strangled Japan’s wartime economy, Beijing is moving to ensure its security with the construction of a 21st century blue water navy.

This threatens the imperial power and privileges that have flowed to U.S. elites as a consequence of U.S. regional dominance. It also explains the U.S. military, economic and diplomatic pivot – including TPP – to Asia and the Pacific.

Common Security Alternatives to International Relations 101

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel has warned that “China is pushing boundaries” and that “The behavior that we’re seeing suggests that the Chinese want to exercise a kind of exceptionalism. We’re hearing more and more about a Chinese dream.” Implicit in Russel’s remark is the belief that only one nation – the United States – has the right to dictate the rules of the game, those that reinforce the United States’ exceptional American Dream.

It is no accident that when the Obama Administration campaigned to find votes needed to win approval of “fast track” TPP, he warned that “China, the 800 pound gorilla in Asia, will create its own set of rules…” but that with TPP “China is going to have to adopt this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” (emphasis added) His former trade Tsar William Daley followed, writing that with TPP “China’s economic fortunes will be tied to joining our alliance….”

Complementing and less remarked upon than the TPP negotiations are the U.S. negotiations with the European Union for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement. As Sergei Rogov of Moscow’s Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies observed, “Obama is…planning to place the United States at the helm of two ‘rings’, two giant regional economic coalitions, the Transatlantic and Trans-Pacific Partnerships, which account today for 20 percent of the world’s population, 65 percent of global GDP, and almost 70 percent of global exports. China looks rather modest compared to this.”

Our government is playing a dangerous game that is rife with contradictions that echo across the past century. Joseph Nye, long a leading architect of U.S. Asia-Pacific policies, has rightly warned that throughout history there have been dangerous rivalries between rising and declining powers. Twice in the 20th century, Nye has repeatedly said, the U.S. and Britain failed to integrate the rising powers of Germany and Japan into their world order, resulting in catastrophic world wars. For this reason, he has pressed simultaneous U.S. engagement and containment of China, with containment having its hard military edge. Yet, in laying the foundation for the Obama pivot, he also wrote that “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. American must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework.”

Tragically, neither Nye nor many other U.S. “national security” planners have yet to internalize the lessons from the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars or from the Common Security end to the Cold War. Now a proud and rising power, Beijing will resist being managed into the role of subordinate planet in the American Dream universe. The brutal zero-sum age of colonial conquest and exploitation died with Indian independence and U.S. and French defeats in Vietnam. Neither the American nor the Chinese Dream can be exported on waves of new arms races or with the threats and environmental degradation that accompany the construction of still more foreign military bases. One way or another, it is the 99% who pay the price of economic, military and political imperial competition.

The alternative, as we learned almost three decades ago, is the pursuit of common or shared security. It reflects the age old truth that a person or a nation will not feel secure if their actions lead their neighbor or rival to be insecure and fearful. At the height of the Cold War, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme brought leading U.S., European and Soviet figures together to find ways to step back from the brink. Common Security was their answer, leading to the negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which functionally ended the Cold War before the dramatic collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In common security negotiations, the fears and insecurities of each party are named and addressed without undermining the other’s security. It is win-win rather than zero-sum. This can be applied to arms races, resource competition, trade, climate change, or any other challenges, to real security. In the words of the International Peace Bureau’s Reiner Braun, “Common security means negotiation, dialogue and cooperation; it implies peaceful resolution of conflicts. Security can be achieved only by a joint effort or not at all.”

Of course we need international trade negotiations and agreements. But, they must be arrived at via inclusive, democratic, open, and transparent processes. They must be designed to reinforce the security and dignity of the world’s peoples and environmental sustainability. It was, we should remember, the mass dislocation of Mexican farmers and agricultural workers resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement that drove millions of desperate men, women and children fleeing north to the United States, with the inherent risks, deaths and humiliations that have followed for so many.

As Congress moves to debate the ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership, our message should be clear: Not this treaty! Go back to work with China at the table and addressing the needs of this and future generations as the negotiations’ primary goal.

** Emphasis added by author.

Joseph Gerson

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. His previous books include The Sun Never Sets and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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