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Opinion The U.S. needs to learn from its TPP mistake — and get its seat back at the table

Containers are loaded on a ship at a port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in May 2020. (Hau Dinh/AP)

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) are, respectively, the chair and ranking Republican of the Senate Finance subcommittee on international trade, customs and global competitiveness.

The latest headlines from Asian trading markets should worry lawmakers, regardless of party.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, China is quietly — but deliberately — seeking to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), formerly known simply as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Yes, that TPP — the trade pact originally crafted in large part to counter China’s growing economic and geopolitical dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s not a flash in the pan: China’s push is reportedly being considered seriously by officials representing Australia and New Zealand, among other CPTPP members.

Such a possibility would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when the United States was leading the way in carefully crafting this trade agreement with partners on both sides of the Pacific Rim.

Had we joined the TPP, it would have brought a potential sea change for U.S. manufacturers, farmers, small businesses and other exporters by eliminating more than 18,000 tariffs on American-made products in some of the world’s fastest-growing markets. The agreement was also crafted with the environment in mind, and it included new requirements for acceptable working conditions.

Compromises are made in any trade deal, and the TPP was no different. But to even have a shot at writing the rules, you need a seat at the table. And right now, the United States is waiting in the hallway.

The previous administration decided to withdraw from the TPP in 2017, a controversial move that brought economic uncertainty, damaged U.S. credibility among trading partners and ceded to China hard-fought economic ground in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing no doubt celebrated the news.

Our country walked away from an agreement that comprised nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), with China on the outside looking in. Afterward, the remaining countries plowed ahead without us, forging strong economic bonds and creating the CPTPP, which represents about 14 percent of global GDP. China was the top beneficiary of the leadership vacuum our country left behind, overtaking the United States last year as the top destination for new foreign direct investment and then leading the creation of a 15-nation regional trade agreement, which includes a number of TPP parties such as Japan and Malaysia.

But with every new administration comes a reassessment of our nation’s approach to trade and the opportunity to work on a bipartisan basis to put the United States in the best possible position on the global stage. Under the leadership of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who was confirmed by the Senate 98 to 0, we should use this opportunity to reengage our Asia-Pacific allies and forge multilateral trade partnerships in the region. Doing so would not only remove barriers for U.S. exporters but also would help us counter China’s ambitions and advance a rules-based global trade regime built on the principles of fundamental fairness and transparency — a level playing field on which China is not used to competing.

Ideally, U.S. reengagement in the Asia-Pacific means negotiating a way to reenter the TPP, a move that would be a boon for job growth, increase U.S. regional influence and signal our willingness to once again act as a serious trading partner. But if, instead, China beats us to the punch by joining this pact, it would almost surely mean a degrading of environmental and labor standards on both sides of the Pacific.

U.S. trade leadership in the Asia-Pacific is an imperative for our country’s economy, national security and broader diplomatic efforts. We intend to use our positions atop the Senate’s trade panel, as a Delaware Democrat and a Texas Republican, to speak with one voice on the need to reengage in this region — and once again get back our seat at the table.

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