As the U.S. pushed for completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal earlier this year, the White House offered a surprisingly direct reason to complete the globe-spanning trade agreement.
"If we don't write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region. We will be shut out," President Barack Obama said in April.
This deal was not merely intended to spur billions of dollars in new trade by chopping down tariffs and other barriers. It was a deal to reassert U.S. primacy in a region increasingly dominated by the strength of a China that has become, militarily and economically, a mighty force.
"The Chinese certainly have always seen this as being a form of economic containment, as aimed against them," said Jonathan Fenby, founding partner of market research consultancy Trusted Sources.
And in some ways, the success of the TPP talks marks success for the U.S., which now has a deal with the power to create a template for future trade pacts that do include China. At the same time, the TPP gives other Asian nations a leg up at the expense of Beijing, which stands to lose $47-billion (U.S.) in GDP by 2025, according to calculations by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Canada would gain $9.9-billion, and the U.S. $77.5-billion.
"China will suffer trade-diversion losses," said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with IHS Global Insight. The deal will drive textiles and electronics manufacturers to countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, which will gain cost advantages in selling to markets like the U.S. and Japan.
But what power the TPP holds may prove short-lived. In economic terms, China stands to gain much more from other more inclusive regional trade deals. Those so-called "Asian track" agreements – including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which pointedly does not include the U.S. – stand to add $233-billion to China's GDP by 2025, the Peterson Institute calculated. Negotiators want that deal done this year.
China also has little reason to fear isolation in being shut out of the TPP. It's already firmly enmeshed in what is called the "noodle bowl" of Asian trade pacts. China has free-trade deals in hand with Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a grouping that includes TPP signatories Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
And even as the U.S. seeks to stamp its trading values on Asia through the TPP, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank gives Beijing its own powerful forum for promoting a Chinese vision of regional development. Its founding members include half of the TPP nations. Even the trade diversion damage the TPP will inflict on China is muted by the fact that Beijing itself is trying hard to push its local economy away from making t-shirts and into more valuable pursuits.
Still, there is little doubt the TPP agreement comes at a time when the U.S. and China are vying for dominance. Beijing's fears about being excluded from the TPP are long-standing – in 2012, Li Xiangyang, a dean at the highly influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it "represents the gravest challenge China faces" to continue its economic rise – but so are its efforts to place itself at the centre of its own powerful sphere of influence.
Beijing and Moscow have found greater common cause in recent years, and their deepening relationship stands to revive millennia-old Silk Road routes that point trade west from Beijing, rather than east across the Pacific.
An effort to co-ordinate China's Silk Road Economic Belt plans with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union have prompted Russia to suggest a new era is dawning – a "Central-Eurasian moment" where economic strength is built far from the influence of the White House.
Still, the rhetoric around China's push west far outweighs its statistical importance. China-U.S. trade reached $591-billion (U.S.) last year, and has been rising fast; Sino-Russian trade hit $95-billion last year, but was down 32 per cent in the first five months of 2015.
The TPP is not, in other words, an economic Cold War in the making – China is simply too important to the nations, including both Canada and the U.S., that are signing the deal.