Claude Barfield and Philip I. Levy, AEI have written a very interesting article on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
They correctly identify that each attempt to articulate a new framework for East Asian regional architecture is really an articulation of a given nation’s ideal architecture where their influence would be maximised (ie China- ASEAN plus three, Japan – ASEAN plus six, US – APEC, Australia/NZ & India – ASEAN plus 6 and so forth).
However, the problem for the US has been that APEC is dead, and is not likely to be resurrected. My feeling is that most countries aside from the US continue to engage with APEC mainly to humour the US, such is the importance of the relationship for any country.
While some critics believe that anything short of a WTO agreement or at the very least, large regional APEC/EU like agreements, undermines free trade in the long-run through distortions, it seems that the risk the US was running a risk in not getting in on a lot of the noodle bowl action, so to speak.
The TPP represents a much more pragmatic move and could be, as the authors argue, a valuable addition to US trade policy. The countries involved, or potentially involved (Singapore, NZ, Australia, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, and Japan) are with the exception of Japan and the US already very strongly involved in the creation of FTAs in the region and have a lot of experience in hammering out agreements over contentious issues but not so contentious at to render agreement impossible.
For the most part they are challenging enough countries to put in place FTAs with, but not so offensive to local interests that they would at this point in time present any reasonable or unreasonable threat to US and/or that matter Japan. By narrowing down the vision at first, and learning from the experience (and compromising with these countries as so far is required) this could very well be a training run for those countries like the US and Japan whose domestic politics create problems with fully committing to any kind of regional trade agenda.
And even if the TPP proved to be difficult enough in itself, it would provide a valuable axis in which to connect the US to East Asian regionalism, without necessary requiring a full US commitment. If even this was insurmountable, then this would be telling in of itself.