Trump officials have given Australia tacit approval on TPP, Obama economist says

A former Obama administration official says he believes the Trump administration has given Australia tacit approval to move ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite the president disavowing and dumping the agreement as one of his first acts in office.

Matthew Goodman, who served as White House coordinator for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and the East Asia Summit in the previous administration, told Guardian Australia he believed the Trump administration had given Australia licence to “just keep the seat warm for the United States”.

“I have no hard evidence of this, but I’ve heard senior Trump administration officials have acknowledged Japan and Australia’s interests in moving forward [with the TPP] and haven’t expressed any objections to that,” Goodman said.

He said Japan had been “rattled” when Donald Trump confirmed the US wouldn’t proceed with the controversial regional trade pact. “[Japan] approached the Trump administration and got their tacit approval to drive this forward”.

Goodman, who now holds the William E Simon chair in political economy at the respected Washington thinktank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the US in the Trump era had to look for “workarounds” given it had enduring interests, both economic and strategic, in this region.

He said the US would look to Australia to keep issues of mutual interest ticking over. “We have to coordinate with allies like Australia to be, in a sense, our proxy, during this period where we are not leading on these issues”.

Lead negotiators from the 11 remaining TPP countries met in Sydney in an effort to keep the trade deal alive after the Trump withdrawal.

The deal pursued by the Obama administration secured agreement from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Goodman said Trump’s decision to exit the trade pact was “a mistake”, and had set back America’s strategic interests in the region. “I am critical of the administration on these issues – this was not helpful to our interests out here, to withdraw from the TPP.”

He said the TPP was the economic expression of US influence and connectedness in the region, and he insisted an economic strategy was required in Asia, not just a military presence.

“We have to work at being here, because we are a Pacific power but not an Asian country,” Goodman said.

He acknowledged that the TPP was controversial with the public, but he said the trade pact had become a scapegoat of a lot of anxieties, and “an easy target”.

Goodman said there was a big challenge ahead for supporters of trade liberalisation given there was an underlying set of economic anxieties in developed economies which gave rise to populism, and to Trump.

He said the benefits of trade liberalisation were not always obvious to Americans, but the specific transitional costs were front of mind for many people. “We have to have real answers to those questions,” he said.