China has filed an application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the commerce ministry said, as the world’s second-biggest economy looks to bolster its clout in trade.
Commerce Minister Wang Wentao submitted China’s application to join the free-trade agreement in a letter to New Zealand’s trade minister, Damien O’Connor, the Chinese ministry said in a statement late on Thursday.
Japan, the CPTPP’s chair this year, said it would consult with member countries to respond to China’s request, but stopped short of signalling a timeline for doing so.
“Japan believes that it’s necessary to determine whether China, which submitted a request to join the TPP-11, is ready to meet its extremely high standards,” Japanese Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters on Friday.
Former Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who is a contender to become the next premier, also said on Friday that it was necessary to watch carefully if China is able to meet stringent requirements for its members.
These remarks were not explained, but it’s likely that Japan and some other countries that have signed the Trans-Pacific pact are cool on Beijing’s bid to boost its economic clout given heightened regional tensions over the South China Sea and other differences.
The CPTPP was signed by 11 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan and New Zealand in 2018. Before that, it was known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and seen as an important economic counterweight to China’s regional influence.
The TPP was central to former US President Barack Obama’s strategic pivot to Asia but his successor, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the pact in 2017. A number of lawmakers in the US are said to oppose China joining the CPTPP, but there has been no indication yet that the Biden Administration is interested in joining the trade deal.
China’s application is said to be the result of months of behind-the-scenes discussions by officials in Beijing after President Xi Jinping expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific pact in 2020.
The move was revealed hours after President Biden announced a new security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom on Thursday.
‘Piling pressure on US’
The Chinese foreign ministry said on Friday that China‘s application to join the CPTPP was totally unrelated to the recently formed Indo-Pacific security alliance dubbed AUKUS, under which the United States and Britain will provide Australia with the technology and capability to deploy nuclear-powered submarines.
Meanwhile, the state mouthpiece the Global Times said: “The late-night announcement aims to cement China’s leadership role in global trade, while piling pressure on the US that has thus far stayed away from rejoining the revised version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership”, citing experts.
“China’s potential membership would also enhance trade cooperation with US allies, including Canada, Japan and Australia, while the US stays on the sidelines,” it said.
“China is hoping for the CPTPP to put global trade and economic cooperation back on track, underscoring the need for multilateralism, thereby reviving both the Chinese economy and the global economy in the post-Covid-19 era.”
It suggested that analysts believed China’s latest move “would inevitably subject the US to what could be overwhelming pressure.”
Accession to the CPTPP would be a major boost for China following the signing of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement last year.
Britain also keen to join
Beijing has lobbied for its inclusion in the pact, including by highlighting that the Chinese and Australian economies have enormous potential for cooperation. However, relations between the two countries have soured.
Britain began negotiations in June to enter the trade pact, while Thailand has also signalled interest in joining it.
Member countries of the CPTPP agreed recently to hold a first meeting with Britain within a month to discuss its inclusion in the trade deal, Japan’s economy minister said on September 1.
Wang and O’Connor held a telephone conference to discuss the next steps following China’s application, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said.
• Jim Pollard and Reuters
This report was updated on September 17.