As Bernie Sanders’ quest for the Democratic nomination for the presidency winds down, he has set his sight on other lofty ambitions: influencing the Democratic Party’s platform. Recently, that’s meant vehemently condemning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Sanders decries as unfairly forcing workers to compete against “low-wage countries who earn pennies an hour.”
Sanders stands against TPP for economic reasons, though his arguments largely miss the mark. TPP will likely not affect the American economy. A U.S. International Trade Commission study predicted that the trade agreement would “lift U.S. gross domestic product by a small amount – 0.15%, or $42.7 billion, by 2032 – and increase employment by a net of 128,000 full-time jobs.” The effects are not spread evenly. Business services and agriculture would each grow by around $10 billion; manufacturing would decrease by around the same amount (per the ITC study).
Criticizing the TPP on economic grounds is not the right line of attack. The approach ignores evidence to the contrary and, more importantly, fails to analyze TPP’s geopolitical ramification, the agreement’s motivating factor. Sanders’ TPP disparagements therefore shows that he fundamentally misunderstands the multinational trade pact – TPP is much more a strategic foreign relations move by President Barack Obama than it is a free-trade pact designed to affect the domestic economy.
China’s influence across Asia is growing. Its development as a country and increasing international clout threatens America’s standing as the world’s sole hegemon. The spread of Chinese political thought – illiberal, totalitarian governance coupled with a quasi-capitalistic economic system – threatens America’s commitment to liberal democracy. TPP comes at a time when “China is…pushing to accelerate the transition to a new order in Asia – one in which China itself has greater influence over the United States, Japan, and other smaller states in the system.” The trade agreement seeks to contain China by boosting America’s image in Asian and Southeast Asian countries, some of whom, like Vietnam, already view China’s rise with weary eyes.
And it’s easy to see how TPP will accomplish that goal. A study done by Peter A. Petri and Michael G. Plummer of Brandeis University estimates that the economies of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore will grow by 8.1, 7.6, 5.9, and 3.9 percent, respectively, by 2030. There’s no better way to ingratiate America to the people of these countries than through economic and income growth. Both will increase the standard of living for people throughout TPP member states and, coming from American action, will pull those countries away from Chinese influence.
Lowering trade barriers, apart from creating prosperity for the involved countries, fosters a culture of openness and togetherness. Member nations must work together to establish rules by which all must abide. Doing so creates the long-sought society of states where countries coexist in a peaceful, stable order that builds wealth and promotes the general welfare of all those involved. TPP creates that society, headed by the United States, in a region where an aspiring hegemon hopes to overpower American interests.
What’s more, if successful, TPP could induce China to apply for membership. Though such an action is not imminent, President Obama mentioned that China has “already started putting out feelers about the possibilities of them participating at some point.” Their membership would hinge on “major changes to its economy, international diplomacy and attitude toward free trade.” In turn, that would ideally lead to China further accepting capitalistic reform and the political liberalization that usually accompanies market reforms (this on top of the benefits accrued from China entering a society of peaceful states). Distant, perhaps infinitely so, the possibility of China entering TPP and working with America on equal grounds is worth mentioning as a TPP plus.
TPP poses the best means for America to curry favor with Asian and Southeast Asian countries while containing Chinese influence. As such, opposing TPP on pure economic grounds not only fails to accommodate research findings, it displays international ignorance. Sanders embraces a position that simply does not make sense and, in fighting TPP, he demonstrates that TPP’s true benefits and design eludes him. As Michael J. Green and Matthew P. Goodman stated, “The opponents of TPP have offered no better pathway to [the aforementioned] beneficial future.”
 In a sense, TPP fights fire with fire: China expanded its sphere of influence largely through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Soft power often yields the best results in foreign relations.