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Trump calls it a 'disaster,' but top experts are saying TPP might still happen without him

  • The other 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal appear set to revive the pact without the U.S., experts said at the Institute of International Finance conference in Tokyo this week.
  • Deborah Elms, executive director at the Asian Trade Centre, said on Monday that it was "hubris on the part of the U.S." to believe the absence of the U.S. would kill the TPP.
  • Charles Lake, president of Aflac International and chairman of Aflac Japan, said at the conference that TPP-11 was well within the realm of possibility.
A cargo ship sits docked at the Port of Seattle in Seattle, Washington.
Mike Kane | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A cargo ship sits docked at the Port of Seattle in Seattle, Washington.

Reports of the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement may be premature, as the deal's members consider proceeding without the U.S.

That's the wind in the air at the Institute of International Finance conference in Japan, despite U.S. President Donald Trump pulling the U.S. out of the TPP, a broad 12-nation trade deal, which he claimed was a "disaster" that would hurt U.S. manufacturing.

Although Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had initially said that the TPP would be "meaningless" without the U.S., more recently, Japanese officials have begun to second Australia's calls to proceed without the U.S.

Deborah Elms, executive director at the Asian Trade Centre, said the other 11 nations have decided they want to preserve the benefits of the deal.

"I think that's hubris on the part of the U.S. to assume that once we pull out, then everybody else is going to go home," she told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on the sidelines of the conference on Monday. "This is a 12-party agreement. The other 11 are equally important on their own right."

She noted that the TPP was skewed toward U.S. interests, which may pose challenges to shaping an ex-U.S. pact, but she still expected a deal could be reached by year-end.

Elms added that Japan may also be hoping the U.S. might rejoin the deal later.

Japan was set to be a major beneficiary of TPP, particularly the country's auto sector would have obtained cheaper access to U.S. markets.

The U.S. leader has also complained about his country's trade deficit with Japan, pointing particularly to an imbalance in auto sales: Japan exports more than a million cars to the U.S. annually, while the U.S. sells a little more than 10,000 vehicles a year in Japan.

Analysts generally attribute the imbalance not to trade barriers, but to U.S. cars being ill-suited to the Japanese market, which tends to prefer small, fuel-efficient cars, and to the lack of established dealer networks.

Others also expected an ex-U.S. TPP could proceed.

Charles Lake, president of Aflac International and chairman of Aflac Japan, said at the conference that TPP-11 was well within the realm of possibility.

Lake said on Tuesday that Japan was in a position to negotiate TPP-11 as the government has already done the TPP-spurred work to lay foundations for reform.

When that new TPP deal is eventually concluded in a few years, other countries, such as South Korea and maybe even the U.S., might be ready to jump in, he added.

Trump's decision to walk away from TPP damaged at least some of Abe's structural reform drives.

For example, Abe's administration managed to push through some liberalizing measures for the tightly controlled agriculture sector, with the promise of more to come to comply with TPP, in part by dangling the prospect of access to large export markets such as the U.S.

Reforming the agriculture sector has long been politically unpalatable in Japan, even though it's widely believed to be necessary in a country where food prices are considered relatively high because of the segment's inefficiencies.

That could be one reason Japan got on the TPP-11 bandwagon.

Speaking on a panel at the IIF meeting on Monday, Nobuyuki Hirano, president and group CEO for Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, said expected Japan would push for a deal.

"It's clear that U.S. economy's size and the market was the critically important point for every of the 11 nations," Hirano said. "So it's not easy, but that's the way you probably move forward. And then you invite the Trump administration to join us."

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