President Trump ordered top administration officials Thursday to look at rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sprawling trade pact he rejected three days after taking office.
The move would mark a stunning reversal for Trump, who sharply criticized the pact as a “disaster” and made opposition to global trade deals a centerpiece of his economic agenda as a candidate.
The Obama administration had signed the trade agreement, known as TPP, with 11 other countries, including Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia, to lower tariffs and counter China’s influence in the Pacific. An embrace of the TPP would give Trump more leverage in his escalating trade feud with Beijing. It also would give U.S. farms, retailers and other businesses better access to foreign markets if China makes good on its recent threats of new tariffs on U.S. goods.
Thursday’s order comes as Trump pushes forward on a chaotic revamp of the United States’ approach to global trade, seemingly veering from trade wars one day to multinational pacts the next. He has gone from assailing Canada and Mexico to saying he’s within striking distance of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has both pilloried China and praised its leader, Xi Jinpin
But no reversal has been more extreme than his new flirtation with the TPP. His comments were so unexpected that White House officials, lawmakers, business groups and others weren’t sure whether Trump had made a calculated overture or if it was another whimsical idea that he would cool on soon.
Reentering the TPP would not be easy. The 11 other countries reached their own trade deal this year, and it is unclear what conditions they would set before they restarted the entire process with the United States. The deal would be much stronger with U.S. participation, since it is the world’s largest economy. But several countries in the deal have cast a wary eye toward Trump’s swings on trade.
Canada and Mexico are part of the TPP talks, for example, and Trump has blasted leaders from both countries for what he describes as ripping off U.S. workers. Japan is also part of the TPP, and Trump has so far refused to exempt Japan from new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States.