Chairman’s Letter – An Opportunity to Lead

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Ker Gibbs

America’s presidential politics have strange unintended consequences. Truth and decorum were early casualties in this year’s election cycle. Name calling and insults brought discourse down to the level of a reality TV show. Even international trade, long a pillar of the American economy, is under attack. Democrats and Republicans have both become inward looking and parochial in their scramble for votes. What kind of leadership is this?

China is also an easy target for attention -seeking candidates. Fortunately the Chinese have studied our political system and know better than to respond to the rhetoric. Here, I’m less worried about China becoming offended than I am about America scoring an own goal. We are dangerously close to that point.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a historical trade agreement among 12 nations. It has the potential to force transformation within long closed economies like Vietnam, and break open markets with tough trade negotiators like Japan. Where previous bilateral negotiations failed, the critical mass, momentum and sheer force of will of the 12 nations proved too strong against domestic resistance within individual countries. The partners signed the agreement. Now, the U.S. is wavering on ratification.

American Chambers throughout the Asia Pacific region strongly support the TPP and anticipate a boost in trade and economic activity as the long-term result. This past month I met with my counterparts in the region. We discussed a wide range of issues, but trade – and ratifying the TPP – ranked high on their list of priorities. Ambassador Baucus also places TPP high on his agenda, but explained that passing it is now up to us. The business community needs to reach out to members of Congress to express their views.

The arguments against TPP are varied, and for some there is no answer. There are people in Congress, for example, who will oppose any deal that may appear as a win for Democrats. Some argue that the exchange rate controls in the agreement are weak. Others are fixated on the calculus concerning net job gains and whether benefits will accrue to Wall Street or Main Street.

Will American workers benefit from this agreement? Japan finally agreed to liberalize agriculture, a previously untouchable sector. Will increased American exports to Japan compensate for the concessions we made on biologics? The U.S. will gain in some areas and compromise in others, but most analysts agree that TPP will increase overall trade and boost economic activity for the Asia Pacific region as a whole. That will be good for the region, great for America and an enormous benefit for those of us who work in Asia.

American leadership is being tested. Through six years of negotiations, 11 countries joined the United States and finally agreed to terms that are consistent with our ideals, our norms and ways of doing things. It’s not a perfect agreement for America, nor is it overwhelmingly positive for any one country. How sustainable would an agreement be if it benefits only the United States?

America has an opportunity here to continue to lead and exert influence in the area of free trade. If we back out, this region will look elsewhere for leadership. Today the discussion is about trade, but there are more rules to write about currency controls, intellectual property and keeping the Internet free and open. Can we get TPP ratified, in spite of election year politics? Or will we manage to score a goal in our own net? If that happens, others may take our place to lead in Asia.

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