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The Trade Numerologist: Back To The TPP - Trade’s Great Game

16 Apr 2018 John Miller

With trade tensions between China and the US threatening American exports, President Trump last week floated an idea. Maybe, he said, the US should rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

With the rules of global trade being reworked to adjust to protectionist politics around the world, expect more jockeying by countries as they seek to maintain a quorum of profitable alliances and keep their business constituents happy.

In the 19th century, Britain and Russia volleyed for control of central Asia, a contest of diplomatic and military maneuvering known as the Great Game. The current wave of mercantilist repositioning could be called Trade's Great Game, as economic powers look to maintain markets while keeping an edge on their rivals.

The so-called TPP is a trade deal signed this March by 11 countries with Pacific coastlines. Frustrated with gridlock at the World Trade Organization, and eager to offer a trade-trade bloc counterweight to China's might, they agreed to lower tariffs and ease other obstacles to shipping goods across borders. They are currently ratifying the deal.

Shipping lines, logistics firms and manufacturing corporations should take note of the eclectic mix of nations. They can expect trade within the bloc, and consequent opportunities, to flourish.

(Global ranking) TPP countries by exports, 2017

  • (4) Japan $698 billion
  • (13) Canada $421 billion
  • (14) Mexico $409 billion
  • (15) Singapore $373 billion
  • (22) Vietnam $236 billion
  • (23) Australia $231 billion
  • (24) Malaysia $218 billion
  • (40) Chile $65.9 billion
  • (46) Peru $43.3 billion
  • (48) New Zealand $38.1 billion
  • (79) Brunei Darussalam $4.8 billion

Besides countering China, the post-US TPP offers its members alternative low-tariff trade routes if the US continues to enact protectionist policies.

Backing out of the agreement was one of the first major initiatives of this protectionist presidency. Trump had campaigned against the TPP, calling it "a continuing rape of our country." Hillary Clinton, also, said she opposed the deal.

Now Trump says the US could return to the negotiating table if terms are made "substantially better."

One reason for the US to get back into the TPP is simply that its 11 countries are already some of the US's biggest trading partners.

US exports to TPP countries, 2017

  • Canada $282.5 billion
  • Mexico $243 billion
  • Japan $67.7 billion
  • Singapore $29.7 billion
  • Australia $24.6 billion
  • Chile $13.6 billion
  • Malaysia $12.8 billion
  • Peru $8.7 billion
  • Vietnam $8.2 billion
  • New Zealand $3.9 billion
  • Brunei Darussalam $121.1 million

Trump made his remarks about potentially rejoining the TPP in remarks to public officials from farm states, who are worried about losing market access in China. They're hungry for other places to ship their soybeans, corn, wheat, fruit and nuts.

However, it's unlikely that Trump could find more political support to TPP this time around. The US imports substantially from, and runs trade deficits with, most TPP countries.

US imports from TPP countries, 2017

  • Mexico $314 billion
  • Canada $300 billion
  • Japan $136.5 million
  • Vietnam $46.5 billion
  • Malaysia $37.4 billion
  • Singapore $19.4 billion
  • Chile $10.6 billion
  • Australia $10.1 billion
  • Peru $7.3 billion
  • New Zealand $4.2 billion
  • Brunei Darussalam $22.8 million

Leaders of the 11 countries in the TPP reacted with raised eyebrows to Trump's new overture.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga called the deal a "glasswork" that would be difficult to break and rebuild. Australian minister Steven Ciobo said he would have a hard time seeing the deal reset to "appease" the US.

If it wants new agreements, the US might have to traffic bilaterally with specific countries. Within the TPP, the fastest-growing market for US exports is, ironically, Mexico. The US is already renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

US exports to Mexico, 2012-2017

  • 2012: $215.9 billion
  • 2013: $225.9 billion
  • 2014: $241 billion
  • 2015: $236.2 billion
  • 2016: $229.7 billion
  • 2017: $243 billion

US exports to Vietnam, 2012-2017

  • 2012: $4.6 billion
  • 2013: $5 billion
  • 2014: $5.7 billion
  • 2015: $7.1 billion
  • 2016: $10.1 billion
  • 2017: $8.2 billion

Besides increasing rapidly this decade, US exports to Vietnam are diverse, ranging from sound equipment to cotton, and soybeans to plastics.

US exports to Vietnam, 2017

  • Sound equipment, TV, electronics $2.1 billion
  • Cotton $1.1 billion
  • Industrial equipment $452.4 million
  • Fruits, nuts $395.6 million
  • Soybeans, seeds, etc. $375.5 million
  • Optic, photo equipment $312.2 million
  • Plastics $301.5 million
  • Wood $265.5 million
  • Aircraft, aircraft parts $244.7 million
  • Iron, steel $220.8 million

The catch is that the US is running an annual trade deficit of over $35 billion with Vietnam, one of the US's highest bilateral gaps, and one US officials have said they want to reduce.

Vietnam had figured to be one of the main beneficiaries of a US-led TPP, and when the US withdrew, lost promising opportunities.

It's still playing its own game: Last year, on a trip to Washington, its leaders promised to buy at least $15 billion worth of US goods and services, mainly in the high-tech sector.

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email tradenumerologist@gmail.com with comments and questions.

The Trade Numerologist is the IHS Markit unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from the IHS Markit Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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