This could have been Donald Trump's finest hour (at least when it comes to leadership and relationship building in the Asia-Pacific).

On his maiden trip to Asia, the US President should have been heralding the advent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - the trade agreement launched in New York in 2008 by George W. Bush's Republican Administration and key nations including New Zealand.

Instead, Trump has sidelined the United States (and himself).

It is Chinese President Xi Jinping who has stepped into the regional leadership vacuum which emerged when his US counterpart set a new trade agenda: basically, "we'll deal with you bilaterally as long as America's interests come first".


No amount of grandstanding in Beijing, where the US President was this week comprehensively flattered by Xi, can obscure the stark reality of his own lesser position.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade agreement designed to liberalise trade and investment among 12 Asia-Pacific nations: New Zealand, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.

Trump pulled out of the blockbuster trade pact in one of his first acts in office.

After America's departure, New Zealand - which is the repository for TPP - worked with Japan's Government and Australia to hold the remaining 11 countries together in what has been relabelled TPP-11.

It is a sign of the Labour-led Government's pragmatism that, despite having strong reservations about aspects of TPP which were negotiated by its National predecessor, it has not followed Trump and dealt itself out of the Asia-Pacific play.

During the election campaign, Jacinda Ardern was passionate about concerns that the TPP, in particular, would prevent a future Labour Government from banning foreigners from buying existing residential property in New Zealand.

But instead of declaring such issues deal-breakers, the Ardern Government has worked with officials and allies like Australia to craft workarounds.

It will amend the Overseas Investment Act to declare existing residential property "sensitive", thus making it off-limits for foreigners. It will issue side letters with like-minded nations (already Australia has said it "will do this"), instead of using the Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) procedures set out in the TPP agreement.


Importantly, there are also signs that the two major political parties - Labour and National - are prepared to once again act like grown-ups.

Hence, Ardern travelled to Vietnam for Apec, secure in the knowledge that National would vote in support of legislative changes to accommodate the shift from TPP to TPP-11.

Other commitments took me away from Apec this year. At the time this column was filed yesterday, Trade Minister David Parker had confirmed that ministers had agreed to the new TPP-11 agreement with much "celebratory clapping and back-slapping", but when it was handed on to officials, one country decided there was no deal.

While the Asia-Pacific nations had yet to agree on how to salvage the pact, Australia was confident of an outcome, but Canada warned it wanted a good deal over a fast one.

The TPP-11 political leaders in Vietnam for Apec were due to meet last night.

Earlier this year, the influential Foreign Policy magazine headlined "Trump's five mistaken reasons for withdrawing from the TPP". The article said, in essence, that Trump had concentrated on negatives such as saying "The number of jobs and amount of wealth and income the United States have given away in so short a time is staggering, likely unprecedented. And the situation is about to get drastically worse if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not stopped."

But the article noted that the US International Trade Commission and the Peterson Institute estimated that TPP would have modestly increased US annual real income by US$57.3 billion (0.23 per cent) and US$131b (0.5 per cent), respectively.

Trump also said TPP, "would make it easier for our trading competitors to ship cheap subsidised goods into US markets - while allowing foreign countries to continue putting barriers in front of our exports."

But the agreement would have eliminated more than 11,000 tariffs on goods the US exports by 2030, increasing annual US exports by US$357b that year.

The President had also claimed "[The TPP is] a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone." But TPP excludes China.

And in fact, the deal would have positioned the US as the counterweight to China's growing geo-political clout.

Another Trump claim was that the "Trans-Pacific Partnership is an attack on America's business".

But TPP included a side agreement obliging members to "avoid manipulating exchange rates ... to gain an unfair competitive advantage", which was a Trump bugbear.

Trump also outlined that it was the policy of his Administration "to begin pursuing, wherever possible, bilateral trade negotiations to promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages." But despite the US decision to leave the agreement, TPP is not yet dead.

If the 11 other TPP member nations are successful in their overnight negotiations, they will emerge with an agreement. The "master of the deal" will have to think again.

If the TPP leaders fail, they have only themselves to blame.