RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Eleven countries have agreed to sign a major Asia-Pacific free trade deal today. There were supposed to be 12 countries, but the U.S. pulled out. Many analysts said the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP, could not exist without the U.S. But the other countries are plowing ahead anyway. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Trans-Pacific Partnership took five years to hammer out between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, from Australia to Vietnam to Chile. The Obama administration held it up as the new gold standard for free-trade deals. It dealt with things the U.S. cared about - intellectual property, human rights and environmental concerns. But on his first day in office, President Trump backed out of the trade pact, saying the U.S. was getting taken and that he could make better deals bilaterally.
HARRY KAZIANIS: I think it will actually go down as one of the biggest geostrategic mistakes the United States has ever made, maybe even on par to the Iraq War.
NORTHAM: Harry Kazianis is the director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest. He says the TPP was never just about economic growth. He says the trade deal was meant to be the underpinning of the U.S. commitment to Asia, the fastest-growing region in the world.
KAZIANIS: All these countries really are terrified of one thing and one thing only - none of them want to be dominated economically by a rising China. And this is one of the reasons why all of these countries - even to this day, they would still love to have the United States be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
NORTHAM: But even without the U.S., the remaining 11 TPP nations pushed ahead. Matthew Goodman, an Asia economics specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he's surprised the deal came together. He didn't think there was enough consensus in the group or one country able to take the lead as the U.S. had.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: But really, Japan stepped up in a way that I think nobody expected and kind of pushed the other members - Australia, Singapore, others - to come along and say, let's get this thing done and try to keep the door open to the U.S. coming back someday.
NORTHAM: Goodman says Canada wanted to add the words comprehensive and progressive to the name of the trade deal. It's now the CPTPP - quite a mouthful. But Goodman says it will be the largest trade pact in the world.
GOODMAN: Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. And if you add in Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, some other pretty significant economies, and not to mention Canada, Mexico and the Latin members, you have a pretty substantial group here in terms of their weight in the global economy - a formidable group.
NORTHAM: There were rumblings from the Trump administration recently about rejoining the TPP, but Goodman says he wouldn't expect that anytime soon. Trump is hardening his protectionist stance, with the U.S. renegotiating the NAFTA treaty and Trump threatening to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.