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Trump’s withdrawal from Asia trade deal viewed as boon for China

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s formal withdrawal from a long-planned trade deal with Pacific Rim nations creates a political and economic vacuum that China is eager to fill, offering a boost for beleaguered US manufacturing regions but damaging American prestige in Asia.

The move is a blow to former President Barack Obama’s attempt to recenter US foreign policy from the Mideast to Asia.

As the Trump administration retreats from the region by ending US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s Communist leaders are ramping up their globalization efforts and championing the virtues of free trade.

In an address last week to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Chinese president Xi Jinping likened protectionism to ‘‘locking oneself in a dark room’’ and signaled that China would look to negotiate regional trade deals.


China is advocating for a 16-nation pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that excludes the United States and lacks some of the environmental and labor protections Obama negotiated into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Xi and other Chinese leaders are also looking to fill the US leadership vacuum, taking advantage of Trump’s protectionism to boost ties with traditional US allies like the Philippines and Malaysia.

‘‘The US is now basically in a position where we had our horse, the Chinese had their horse — but our horse has been put out to pasture and is no longer running in the race,’’ said Eric Altbach, vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington and a former deputy assistant US Trade Representative for China Affairs.

‘‘It’s a giant gift to the Chinese because they now can pitch themselves as the driver of trade liberalization,’’ Altbach said.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump’s decision. Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton Carter, once said that the Asia-Pacific trade pact would be more strategically valuable than another aircraft carrier battle group in the Pacific.


US withdrawal from the pact ‘‘will create an opening for China to rewrite the economic rules of the road at the expense of American workers,’’ McCain said. ‘‘And it will send a troubling signal of American disengagement in the Asia-Pacific region at a time we can least afford it.’’

Obama saw TPP as ‘‘much more than an agreement that would increase international trade,’’ according to Jack Thompson, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich. The pact was a crucial initiative ‘‘to build and maintain long-term relationships to reassure the other nations in the region,’’ he said.

But Trump’s withdrawal ‘‘directly undermines all of this careful work and gives China yet another opportunity to demonstrate that it represents the future of the security and economic system in East Asia, and that the United States is in decline and can’t be counted on to stick around,’’ he said.

China’s 16-nation RECP would include southeast Asia countries, as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India.

While it reduces tariffs, it wouldn’t require its members to take steps to liberalize their economies, protect labor rights and environmental standards, or protect intellectual property. Developing nations within the agreement are also given more time to comply with regulations that do exist.

‘‘It’s an opportunity for China to defer its own reforms and use its own system as a model to draw other countries closer to its orbit,’’ Dan Ikenson, the director of the Cato institute’s said Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.


When Obama tried to garner support for TPP in the United States, he regularly warned that failure to pass the deal would allow Beijing to replace Washington in driving global trade rules. And his Council of Economic Advisers said passage of RECP would lead to the loss of market share among US industries that now export more than $5 billion in goods to Japan.

But the trade deal never had overwhelming support in Congress, where many Democrats applauded Trump for withdrawing from it on Monday.