“I think it is likely to be much more difficult to get the same strategic and architectural benefits out of a series of bilateral agreements as you might out of a major regional agreement, and certainly not in the same time frame,” said Michael Froman, who was the United States trade representative in the second term of the Obama administration.
And the administration’s desire to reach a trade deal with the Philippines could also prove to be contentious. Since winning election two years ago, President Rodrigo Duterte has emerged as a human rights pariah for allowing extrajudicial killings as part of a crackdown on his country’s epidemic of methamphetamines and other drugs.
Opening negotiations with the Philippines could prove especially problematic as the United States grapples with maintaining its economic and diplomatic ties to Saudi Arabia after the disappearance of a Saudi dissident journalist in Turkey this month. The administration is already under fire for prioritizing financial ties above concern for the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who the Turks say was killed by the Saudis.
Democrats, who could win control of the House of Representatives in November’s elections, are already gearing up for a trade fight with Mr. Trump and rejecting any United States embrace of Mr. Duterte on trade. Finalizing a major trade pact without bipartisan support would be impossible next year if Republicans lose either the House or the Senate.
“This is yet another example of President Trump admiring and rewarding authoritarians,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, in reference to speculation that talks with the Philippines could soon begin.
The Philippines was excluded from the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership because its high tariffs and other trade barriers for keeping out foreign competition appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle. Strong interest groups in the Philippines want to keep those trade barriers, including wealthy families that own companies that benefit from limiting foreign competition.
Instead, the United States turned its attention to Vietnam, which also has high trade barriers, but which the Obama administration viewed as a unified Communist government with the political will to force through market-opening measures.
“The work has already been done,” said Chad Bown, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, noting that a detailed outline of new trading terms had already been drawn for a developing country such as Vietnam. “It makes sense to go back to them.”