The ongoing talks include countries like Vietnam and Malaysia that are direct competitors with China for international investment, and they could give these countries freer access to U.S. markets and make them more attractive to multinational businesses as foreign investment in China has ebbed.
If U.S. ambitions are met, the pact will unite large portions of Asia, North America and South America in a trading bloc of lowered tariffs and common rules — a tidal pull that the Chinese could find hard to resist.
“This really embeds us in the fastest-growing region of the world and gives us a leadership role in shaping the rules of the game for that region,” said Mike Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economics. “It is creating a platform for the Asia-Pacific that more and more countries will want to be part of.”
After 14 rounds of talks, most recently at Virginia’s Lansdowne Resort, negotiators are aiming to complete the agreement next year among the 11 countries currently involved. Most of them — including Australia, Singapore, Chile and Peru, with Mexico and Canada about to join — already have trade agreements with the United States, which could limit the short-term effect of an additional regional pact.
But the breadth of the agreement, and the potential for its membership to expand, makes it perhaps the central trade discussion underway in the world as global trade talks have ground to a halt. By delving into issues that World Trade Organization rules don’t cover — the proper place of state-owned enterprises, for instance, or questions of electronic commerce — U.S. officials and others hope it will frame a new stage in trade relations for those who join.
After China joined the WTO, Beijing viewed its commitments “as a ceiling” that did not have to be exceeded, said Ted Dean, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “We want them to treat it as a floor. If at the margin Vietnam looks better, Malaysia looks better [because of the Trans-Pacific Partnership] . . .that has an impact.”
China already faces increasing impatience among its major trading partners to loosen control over the state-dominated economy, allow more competition, give freer rein to foreign investors and rely less on exports. Top Communist Party figures have often said that is their intent, and Obama administration officials in recent months have said the country is making strides on important issues, such as state control of the financial system.