New Zealand should be very careful in helping the United States to use the Trans Pacific Partnership deal to assert leadership in the Asia Pacific, former diplomat and senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Terence O'Brien, warned yesterday.
He said it should also be aware of pressures that could diminish Asean's central role.
New Zealand had a foot in both the TPP camp, being negotiated among 11 countries, and the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being led by Asean and also including China, which was launched last week in Cambodia.
But it would become increasingly difficult to maintain that position if the TPP inhibited actions allowed under the RCEP or if East Asia governments saw the TPP as incompatible with their aims.
"The TPP signifies Washington's ambition to assert US leadership of the Asia Pacific regional economic process as a means to restore US economic fortunes," Mr O'Brien told a TPP symposium in Wellington, organised by Victoria University and the University of Auckland.
America's renewed engagement in the region was welcomed, he said. "That doesn't amount, however, to bestowal by East Asia of economic leadership on Washington."
He said Asean's leadership of regional efforts and its ongoing construction of the Asean Community was challenged by the distraction of TPP with four Asean countries - Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - being party to TPP talks.
"The basic issue may boil down to how far, or how wise, is it for New Zealand to consciously assist the regional leadership ambitions of a powerful friend, while risking Asian accomplishments."
The 15th round of TPP talks will be held in Auckland next week.