Global Perspectives - Antonia Colibasanu

The new Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull has referred to China in one of his first interviews tackling foreign affairs, saying that while Australia enjoys “very good relations” with China, some of Beijing’s attitudes are “counter-productive” and has advised it to ease off artificial island construction in the South China Sea. In his words, China would seek “to create a sufficient feeling of trust and confidence among its neighbors that they no longer felt the need to have the U.S. fleet and a strong U.S. presence in the western Pacific”. But the construction of the artificial islands have made the smaller countries turn to the US even more.

The key to read this is trade routes. This is why Chinese presence, including its military dimension, could threaten the goals of the Trans Pacific Partnership, currently under discussion among the regional partners and the US. About 350 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca daily, making this trade route crucial in manufacturers’ supply chains and for energy supplies to Asia. Right in the middle of this line are the Spratly Islands, which are claimed, concomitantly, in part, by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. It is in this area that China is building artificial islands, in an effort to cement control over the waters and air above them.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its companion, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are strategic economic proposals for a better coordination between the US and its partners, covering both oceans. The opposition is growing from countries that are not included in the talks – and even more, are seeing themselves to be natural competitors to the idea of establishing such blocks of trade and investment, namely China for the TPP and Russia for the TTIP. It is the fear of being left aside, while their economies are weakening and to a certain extent are transitioning towards new development models (clearer for Beijing than for Moscow) that the two regional powers are concerned with the proposed partnerships, analyzing what changes the new arrangements bring to their own economic policies.

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While debates on the two accords have been ongoing ever since their proposal, there seemed to be little known about them in Central Europe. Professionals in these nation states administrations working on TTIP were clearly knowledgeable on the topic. But the general public wasn’t aware – there was little to no debate on the matter prior to 2014. The Central Europeans knew of the Asia Pivot that could have taken the American attention in the Pacific – the TPP was just a subtopic of that broader theme. Meanwhile, the TTIP was portrayed in the media to be another bureaucratic initiative of both Brussels and Washington, somewhat in a distant perspective for the region. But Ukraine and the immediate dangers in the borderlands seem to have served as a wake-up call. In 2015, two of the major forum conferences in the region – both Globsec (Slovakia) and Krynica Economic Forum (Poland) have given space to discussions on trade and investment partnerships.

While at Krynica, I had the pleasure to moderate such a discussion and at Globsec I have participated in the debate. Both have treated the topic from a strategic point of view. At Globsec, in Slovakia, we have heard both the Chinese and Brazilian voices of concern, considering the framework that the US and its allies want to create is aiming at bringing regulation harmonization. At Krynica, in Poland, the discussions focused on the EU stakes and how Europe can benefit from a closer partnership with its already close ally from the other side of the Atlantic. The TPP was only mentioned when it came to referencing the US “Asia Pivot” – that is, in essence, complementary to the TTIP and not competing against it. In this context, the panel discussion that I moderated, on “TTIP – the strategic opportunity and the tactical challenges” tackled defense and energy security as well as concerns related to the EU market integration. In Poland, the strategic dimension of the TTIP was regarded through the lenses of short-term geopolitical calculations related to Russia’s next moves. Therefore, resistance seemed to be only taken into account when it came to specific negotiation points, but not the bigger picture, where strategic benefits were obvious.

The two forum conferences I attended in Central Europe, considering the perspectives on both TPP and TTIP, taught me about how the feel of the geopolitical risks shape the way the public and nation states perceive strategic partnerships. The TPP has become a reality after the countries in the Pacific saw little chance of the Doha Round to succeed. Then, when the US and later Japan joined in the negotiations, TPP became relevant first for the regional area, where China has started increasing its activities in the South China Sea, and then for the global sphere.

The TTIP has been largely debated mostly in Brussels, Berlin or Paris since its announcement in 2011. In 2014, after the Ukraine’s crisis, the Central Europeans became interested in anything relating to a better, closer relationship with the US. Sure, TTIP is more than that – but TTIP is also that. And for the immediate strategic interest, in the borderlands, it opens up the discussion on core questions, related to defense and security.

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