NEW YORK: In the wake of recent efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on Japan’s initiative, former deputy US trade representative, Wendy Cutler called the US withdrawal from the TPP a “very serious mistake.”

Cutler, who is vice president and managing director of the Washington DC office of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), and who was a TPP negotiator, said that “one of the most unfortunate things” that the Trump administration did very early in its tenure was to withdraw the US from the TPP.

Cutler, along with Daniel Russel, a Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow at ASPI and a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, spoke at a discussion moderated by Debra Eisenman, ASPI’s managing director, at the Asia Society in New York on Trump’s relationship with Asia.

She said one year after Trump’s announcement to withdraw, the remaining 11 TPP members got together under Japan’s leadership to “put that deal into effect without the United States.

“This suggests that the United States is not getting the benefit from the TPP and has to keep in mind that other countries are filling the vacuum as the US has exited from the kind of economic leadership in the region,”

Cutler cautioned that China is trying to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal, as evident from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech in Davos (Switzerland) in 2017, suggesting that China would be the leader of “inclusive globalisation that it was a free trade country and it was anti-protectionist”.

She found it “very interesting” that two weeks ago President Trump had said something positive about the TPP in Davos. With a lot of caveats, the president suggested that if significant changes were made, the US might be open to TPP.

This was fascinating because the president had in the past called the TPP agreement the “rape of the country” and the “worst deal ever”, criticising the negotiators as the most incompetent people on earth”.

She found it encouraging but cautioned everyone, including her counterparts from the other TPP countries that this would take time. Though a vague statement with a lot of caveats, Trump’s comment was an “opening”.

Cutler urged the TPP-11 (minus the US) to go ahead and sign the agreement in early March in Chile, put the agreement into force as early as Jan 1, 2019.

With time, the US could begin talking with individual TPP countries and see if there is a path forward.

Russel spoke of security consequences from the US withdrawal from the TPP and sensed uncertainty as to where the US is going and what the Trump administration is trying to accomplish on the security front.

He also touched on unfilled vacancies of senior diplomatic staff, both in Washington and US missions.

While there were good appointments of Ambassador Branstad in Beijing, Ambassador Hagerty in Tokyo and Ambassador Juster in Delhi, there were “hugely important” vacancies In Australia, Seoul and Singapore.

“There is also no ambassador for ASEAN,” he said.

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