WASHINGTON — On the heels of bombshell news that President Donald Trump is exploring the possibility of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States is seeking to contain expectations.
That note of caution is being signalled on multiple fronts.
Trump has tweeted that he would only rejoin the agreement if it’s changed substantially; the economic adviser he’s tasked to lead the process has since made clear it’s still preliminary; and an official clarified during a White House briefing Friday that any new deal would have to be very attractive for the U.S. to reconsider.
This was the fallout the day after a surprise development when the president met senators from farm states being battered by poor commodity prices, tariff threats and trade uncertainty and he instructed his adviser Larry Kudlow to, “Go get it done (on TPP).”
But Kudlow has made clear his own doubts of this happening.
“We don’t have a position on TPP,” Kudlow told the Fox Business channel on Thursday night.
“The president has asked me to take a look at it — and I will. … No decisions have been made. … I don’t know how the TPP’s going to come out. We haven’t even started our deliberations yet.”
He said the deal as it exists is currently unacceptable to the U.S. and he’s not sure it’s possible to change: “Maybe it can be improved, maybe not. Maybe it will have market openings for our exports, maybe not. Maybe it will reduce trade barriers for us, maybe not. I think we’re going to take a fresh look at it.”
There is also skepticism from other parties in the 11-country deal.
These countries would have to agree to let the U.S. back in, restore 22 U.S.-friendly provisions that were suspended when Trump withdrew and negotiate additional changes Trump wants.
Australia’s trade minister says he can’t see it.
“I think there is very little appetite among the TPP11 countries for there to be any meaningful re-negotiation of the TPP11 at all,” Steve Ciobo was quoted as saying by The Australian newspaper.
“We’ve got a deal … I can’t see that all being thrown open to appease the United States.”
He said current members have an advantage over the U.S. in that their agricultural exporters are establishing new market links and he believes that’s a reason Trump wants back in.
That’s the argument the president has been hearing from farm states that voted for him: that other countries’ farmers are expanding markets, while American farmers face threats of retaliatory tariffs.
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was in the meeting with the president this week and said TPP would be a smarter way than tariffs for the U.S. to build alliances against unfair Chinese trade practices.
But Japan’s minister on the file also expressed skepticism about U.S. re-entry. Toshimitsu Motegi compared the deal to a glass sculpture — carefully crafted, difficult to change.
“The 11 participating countries share the thinking that it would be extremely difficult to take out part of the TPP and renegotiate or change it,” Motegi said, in comments reported by Japan Today.
He said the countries will have a chance to discuss it next week: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is visiting Trump at his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida.
Some people would be thrilled to see the agreement reopened.
In Canada, the auto-parts lobby says it would be pleased to have Trump force changes that would make the agreement friendlier to North American producers.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press