This piece originally appeared in The Washington Diplomat.

President Trump’s recent comments, suggesting some openness to revisiting the decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is potentially good news for U.S. economic and geopolitical interests. The U.S. withdrawal from the 12-nation agreement shortly after the Trump administration took office was a mistake, confirming the fears of our allies and friends in the Asia Pacific region that Washington’s commitment to the region was in word only.

The TPP pull-out signaled a reassessment of America’s role as a driver of economic growth and stability in a region that is a hub of maritime trade, including energy transportation critical to global interests, and rife with geopolitical tensions and security challenges.

The president’s decision 18 months ago to pull out of the groundbreaking multilateral agreement that the U.S. had negotiated with such countries as Japan, Australia, Mexico, Vietnam, Chile, and Singapore, was a mistake with both short- and long-term repercussions.

The TPP was designed to strengthen the United States, support our pivotal role in the Asia Pacific region, and cement our leadership role in the world.

It established a rule-based order in the region, offering a counterweight to the power-based order represented by China, which is pushing its own trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Our withdrawal from the TPP sent a message to our friends and allies about the weakness of American commitment to the region and to our traditional values, and it was heard clearly in Beijing.

The TPP was the result of difficult negotiations on tariffs and protectionism, which would open markets to the overall benefit of American workers. The agreement also set the “rules of the game” on intellectual property, human rights, environmental protection, and labor rights - elements that reinforced American standards and values and granted U.S. companies access to markets on a level playing field. America lost the most, on multiple fronts, by not signing and leading the TPP agreement.

The other 11 countries, however, recognized its value, renaming it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and proceeded with its implementation, albeit acknowledging that without the U.S., the CPTPP is weaker.

When the U.S. withdrew, the trade agreement shifted from representing roughly 40 percent of the global economy to 13.5 percent. Arguably, with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and others on board—including some of the fastest growing economies in the world—the economic heft represented is not insignificant, but its strength as a counterweight to Chinese influence is certainly diminished.

The door was left open for the U.S. to eventually rejoin, a prospect until recently vehemently rejected by the Trump administration. Rejoining would benefit every citizen of the world, while also fulfilling broader American interests—truly, a foreign policy that puts America first.

Trade issues are at the forefront of U.S. relationships with its closest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan. These same trade issues have a direct impact on our national security interests concerning North Korea and China, where our position relies on strong alliances. Any rifts, perceived or real, will be exploited by our adversaries.

With the President’s announced intentions regarding tariffs on aluminum and steel (Japan has not been included in the list of countries exempted), the renegotiation of the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and the threat of tariffs to the order of $50 billion on Chinese imports—with an additional $100 billion additional tariffs coming—there are palpable fears of an impending trade war that will hurt the U.S. economy. American agricultural interests and other affected industries have voiced their concerns about what might happen.

All along, China has continued its drive to emerge as the powerbroker of the Asia Pacific region, proceeding with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and RCEP. Through BRI, China is pouring billions of dollars into the development and infrastructure of countries along the Silk Road that links it with Europe and the Middle East, and has built a “string of pearls” around the Indian Ocean, increasing its access to ports and expanding its influence, all to China’s long-term benefit, not necessarily to the benefit of the countries themselves.

During our recurring visits with political leaders and policy experts in the region, AJC leadership has heard repeated expressions of anxiety about whether Washington is truly committed to the region.

In this vital region, it is in the U.S. interest to remain engaged, to retain our role as leader of the free world, guided by a set of values and principles that strive for prosperity, justice, equality, fairness, and respect for all. Rejoining the TPP is the right thing to do.

Shira Loewenberg is Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Asia Pacific Institute.

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