Gwynne Dyer | Making China great again
"Passing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is as important to me as another aircraft carrier," said former US defence secretary Ashton Carter two years ago as the negotiations on the huge new free trade organisation were nearing completion.
Given that the United States already has twice as many aircraft carriers as all the rest of the world put together, that comment could be taken several ways, but Carter actually did mean that the TPP was strategically important in his eyes. As it was for ex-president Barack Obama, who saw the TPP as America's main tool for containing China's growing influence in Asia.
China, deliberately excluded from the 12-member club, saw it that way, too. The official Xinhua news agency regularly referred to the TPP as "the economic arm of the Obama administration's geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region".
But the Obama administration is gone, and Donald Trump has just cut off that arm. "A great thing for the American worker, we just did," Trump said after signing a document withdrawing US support for the TPP on Tuesday.
In fact, quitting the TPP is unlikely to do American workers much good economically, but it may not do them much harm either. Most analyses have concluded that the deal wouldn't have had much effect either way on US wages and jobs - but leaving the TPP will certainly have a big impact on US power and influence in the world.
WAR ON FREE TRADE
Xinhua was right: For Obama, the TPP was always more about the strategic rivalry with China than it was about economics. It still is, but Donald Trump's electoral strategy has obliged him to declare war on free trade.
The voters that Trump targeted most heavily were working-class Americans who felt betrayed and abandoned as the well-paying jobs in manufacturing disappeared. However, there was no point in telling them that automation was destroying their jobs (which it is) because he could not plausibly promise to stop automation.
But if he claimed that the real problem was free trade, which allowed the Chinese and Mexicans and other sneaky foreigners to steal American jobs ... well, he could certainly promise to stop that. He would build walls, cancel free-trade deals, even launch trade wars. It all sounded pretty credible, if you didn't know that the vast majority of the lost jobs were really being stolen by robots.
So once he was in office, Trump was obliged to 'unsign' the TPP deal, even though its main purpose, from Washington's point of view, had been to perpetuate American economic and strategic dominance in Asia and freeze China out. In the eyes of Trump's supporters (and maybe even in his own), he was slaying a dragon.
The US could end up excluded from a free-trading bloc that includes half of the world economy. The dominant economy in that bloc would be China's, so the main practical effect of Trump's action would be to give a major boost to China's power and influence in the world.
Trump is making China great again, even if that is not quite what he intended.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.